United States searches of int'l travelers' electronic devices soar in 2017

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The US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has placed new restrictions on when its agents are permitted to copy data from devices such as mobile phones and laptops at border crossing points such as airports, amidst a surge in such "advanced" searches.

Suspicion is the key element in distinguishing a "basic" search from an "advanced" one.

CBP, an agency part of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), last updated the guidelines in August 2009. A basic search is a review of the content on the phone.

An Advanced Search is when the CBP agent connects the user's device to an external system specialized in deeper searches.

According to a 12-page set of rules and a 22-page privacy assessment, border agents can still search electronic devices at the United States border.

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The new protocol is published today and it explicitly states that authorities can search and access all files stored on an individual's phone. This is a dramatic increase from the 19,051 devices searched in 2016.

Privacy advocate Ron Wyden, a USA senator, said "far too many" searches were being carried out by the CBP, and argued constitutional rights should not disappear at the border. "CBP border searches of electronic devices have resulted in evidence helpful in combating terrorist activity, child pornography, violations of export controls, intellectual property rights violations, and visa fraud".

Despite the revised rules, privacy advocates aren't happy, as they still allow border agents to carry out warrantless searches of users' devices without judicial oversight. CBP officers must destroy the password once the device is opened.

CBP said border agents searched about 30,200 travelers, or about 0.007% of the more than 397 million arriving global travelers.

"Customs and Border Protection knows that transnational drug trafficking organizations will take advantage of natural disasters, and in this case an island struggling to recovering from a crippling hurricane, to smuggle risky drugs to our nation's mainland", said Joseph Martella, CBP Acting Area Port Director for the Area Port of Philadelphia.

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