CBP admits massive database compiled from travelers’ devices via warrantless access, sparks security fears

Customs and Border Protection officials have revealed that 2,700 officers have warrantless access to as many as 10,000 devices, such as cellphones, iPads, and laptops, that have been seized from travelers.

This development is sparking security fears as a massive database has been created, containing not only information from criminals but from average Americans as well. Devices have been seized as people traveled through airports, seaports, and border crossings with their data ostensibly being mined for the database.

CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, who heads up Customs and Border Protection, admitted the existence of the database to congressional staff during a briefing that took place last summer. He contends that the data is maintained for 15 years but it’s possible it could be much, much longer than that.

Members of Congress want to know what the government is using the information for.

Further details of the database were disclosed on Thursday in a letter from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) to Magnus. He blasted the agency for “allowing indiscriminate rifling through Americans’ private records” and demanded stronger privacy protections.

“Innocent Americans should not be tricked into unlocking their phones and laptops,” Wyden wrote. “CBP should not dump data obtained through thousands of warrantless phone searches into a central database, retain the data for 15 years, and allow thousands of DHS employees to search through Americans’ personal data whenever they want.”

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Wyden introduced a bill in 2021 that would require border officials to obtain a warrant before searching a device. Right now, the agency has the authority to conduct a “basic search” which can involve scrolling through the data on a device. It considers the practice an effective method to detect security threats.

If a person refuses to unlock the device so it can be searched, it can be confiscated for up to five days.

The agency claims that it can ascertain someone’s “intentions upon entry” by searching the devices.

Lawmakers and privacy advocates view the searchable database with no public oversight as a violation of Fourth Amendment rights that prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures.

CBP spokesman Lawrence Payne asserted via a statement that was made to the Washington Post that they conduct “border searches of electronic devices in accordance with statutory and regulatory authorities.”

He went on to comment that the CBP has implemented rules to ensure the searches are “exercised judiciously, responsibly, and consistent with the public trust.”

The database is called the Automated Targeting System. The agency claims it is used to “further review, analyze, and assess information CBP obtained from electronic devices associated with individuals who are of a significant law enforcement, counterterrorism or national security concern.”

In 2018, the CBP issued a directive requiring that officers only retain information that is related to immigration, customs, or “other enforcement matters.” The only exception to the directive is if there is probable cause justifying retaining more data from a phone.

In the summer briefing, it was revealed that the default for some searches is to download and retain contact lists, call logs, and messages.

Aaron Bowker, who is the CBP’s director of the office of field operations, contends that data is retained in only a fraction of searches and only when “absolutely necessary.”

He also denied the allegation that thousands of officials have access to the data. Ironically, he claimed that it is approximately 5 percent of their operational workforce that has access, which amounts to roughly 3,000 officials according to the Daily Mail.

Bowker also stated that those who do have access are trained, audited, and supervised.

CBP data shows that they conducted over 37,000 searches of devices in the year prior to October 2021.

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