US border forces are seizing Americans’ phone data and storing it for 15 years

If a traveler’s phone, tablet or computer is ever searched at an airport, American border officials could add data from their device to a massive database accessible to thousands of government officials. Top US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have admitted to lawmakers in a briefing that their officials add information from up to 10,000 devices to a database each year. The Washington Post reports.

Additionally, 2,700 CBP officers without a warrant can access the database without having to record the purpose of their search. Those details were revealed in a letter from Senator Ron Wyden to CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, in which lawmakers also said CBP would keep any information it takes from people’s devices for 15 years.

In the letter, Wyden urged the commissioner to update CBP’s practices so that device searches at borders focus on suspected criminals and security threats, rather than allowing “indiscriminate searches of Americans’ private records without suspecting a crime.” Wyden said CBP extracts sensitive information from people’s devices, including text messages, call logs, contact lists, and in some cases even photos and other private information.

While law enforcement agencies are typically required to obtain a search warrant if they want to access the contents of a phone or other electronic device, border agencies are exempt from doing the same. Wyden also pointed out that travelers who are searched at airports, seaports and border crossings are not informed of their rights before their devices are searched. And if they refuse to unlock their electronics, authorities could confiscate them and keep them for five days.

As The post notes that a CBP official previously testified that the agency’s directive gives its officers the power to scroll through any traveler’s device in a “simple search.” If they find “reasonable suspicion” that a traveler is breaking the law or doing something that poses a threat to national security, they can conduct an advanced search. They can then connect the traveler’s phone, tablet or PC to a device that copies their information, which is then stored in the Automated Targeting System’s database.

CBP director of field operations Aaron Bowker told the publication that the agency only copies people’s data when “absolutely necessary.” However, Bowker didn’t deny that agency officials can access the database — he even said the number was larger than what CBP officials told Wyden. Five percent of CBP’s 60,000 employees have access to the database, he said, which equates to 3,000 officers rather than 2,700.

Wyden wrote in his letter:

“Innocent Americans should not be tricked into unlocking their phones and laptops. CBP should not dump data obtained through thousands of unsolicited phone searches into a central database that will retain data for fifteen years and allow thousands of DHS employees to search Americans’ personal data whenever they choose.”

Two years ago, the senator also called for an investigation into CBP’s use of commercially available location data to track the phones of people without warrants. CBP admitted at the time that it had spent $500,000 to access a commercial database that “contains location data extracted from applications on millions of Americans’ cell phones.”

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