2017 is set to be a landmark year for the sheer number of US Border searches of electronic devices. Data released from the Department of Homeland Security has recently shown that searches of mobile phones alone grew from 5000 in 2015, to 25,000 in 2016.
In February 2017 alone, 5000 devices were searched according to NBC news. Attending those numbers is a string of reports of inbound travellers having their laptops, tablets and cellphones seized and searched with border agents requesting their passwords.
The US government are now being sued to figure out why. The Columbia University legal organisation the Knight First Amendment Institute filed the lawsuit in an attempt to find out why US border agents are increasingly seizing and searching traveller's laptops, computers and mobile devices.
The Institute wants to get its hands on internal Department of Homeland Defence (DHS) directives authorising such searches.
Alex Abdo, senior staff attorney, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University told SC that, “These searches are an affront to our rights to privacy and free speech. You shouldn't be subjected to a digital strip-search simply for crossing the US border. The extraordinary discretion the government claims will be abused, and it will inevitably chill free inquiry and expression.”
One theory holds that the US Constitution does not apply at the border. Specifically, the fourth amendment or “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
While the current administration in the US has made a fine point on strengthening border protections and rolling back privacy regulation, this trend began under previous administrations.
The US government claims the authority to carry out such searches on the basis of two directives issued in 2009 to the US Customs and Border Protection and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement authority.
However, sources told NBC news that the recent political climate, compounded with a variety of domestic terror attack over the last couple of years have encouraged law enforcement officers to intensify efforts. "The shackles are off," Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project told NBC.
Recent executive orders from the Trump administration, have attempted to relieve foreigners and non-native residents of protections under the US privacy act in an attempt to bolster border security. Talk of “extreme vetting” has characterised much of Donald Trump's rhetoric around immigration and a series of data protection regulations have been rolled back in the last month.John Kelly, the current director of DHS has also stated his desire to Congress to require passwords from VISA applicants. He told the House Homeland Security Committee: “We want to get on their social media with passwords – what do you do, what do you say. If they don't want to cooperate then they don't come in. If they truly want to come to America they'll cooperate, if not then ‘next in line'.”