President Donald Trump may be now considering steps known as “extreme vetting” in his effort to “protect” the United States from innocent travelers who aren't down with having their personal information being revealed to strangers. However, cases of people handing over their phones and passwords to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have been happening for years.
Recent estimates suggest that these cases have become so common that they have increased nearly threefold, with border agents inspecting 4,444 phones in 2015 and 23,000 in 2016. Not only foreign visitors are targeted; American citizens are having their personal information invaded as well.
For American citizens like Sidd Bikkannavar, this policy became all too real recently.
On Jan. 30, just 10 days after Trump was sworn in, Bikkannavar was told to report to CBP officers at the Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston after a trip to Chile. During his interaction with CBP, he was first asked a few questions, and then he was told to hand over his phone and password to unlock it.
The American citizen, who is a NASA engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had enrolled in the Global Entry program, which gives participants the privilege of going through expedited customs processing. People like Bikkannavar are “low-risk travelers” and are only allowed to be part of the program after passing a background check and paying a fee.
After Bikkannavar politely refused and said that his phone had been issued by his employer, the CBP officer insisted, saying that there would be legal consequences if he didn't comply. Bikkannavar finally gave in and handed over this phone.
"I have no problems with government or authority, and I've always put a certain amount of trust in our elected government," Bikkannavar told reporters. "I guess after this event and with everything else going on, the new travel policies, I guess I have to question how much I really trust the government to be looking out for everyone's best interest."
But despite all of the reports regarding these privacy violation cases, the U.S. Constitution bars authorities from unreasonable searches, theoretically protecting people like Bikkannavar. However, if you ask CBP, the agency will maintain that it has the authority to go over anybody's smartphone at border crossings or airport customs checkpoints.
Last week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said before the Senate Homeland Security Committee that this procedure is “just like an American citizen coming in and having his bags searched at the port of entry. Generally speaking, it's done for a reason.”
But Neema Singh Guliani, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says that Kelly isn't telling us the whole story.
“It's hard not to view these searches in the broader context of some of the rhetoric and the actions that have been taken [by the Trump administration],” Guliani said.
Instead of equating the confiscation of phones and passwords with checking the contents of a suitcase, ACLU attorneys see the practice as unconstitutional. Instead, the government agency must first obtain a search warrant before demanding the password to a person's phone or computer.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has tried to tackle this issue by sponsoring legislation that would require the government to get a probable-cause warrant prior to searching through devices. His bill has several senators from both sides of the aisle as co-sponsors.
With this bill, Wyden and others hope that “in a very polarized time, Americans of all political philosophies are going to say they'd like to have our agents at the borders focus on criminals and terrorists, rather than wasting their time thumbing through the personal phones and memorabilia of our people,” the Oregon Democrat said.
According to the ACLU, Americans are entitled to refuse to give CBP agents their passwords, but as a result, they may run the risk of being detained and having their devices taken away from them. Those who are from abroad may be denied entry if they refuse to comply.
As Bikkannavar said, it's hard to look at this type of activity and not wonder whether our government is really looking out for our best interest. With the threat of similar incidents happening even more frequently, the idea that we're living in George Orwell's 1984 isn't that far-fetched.