Yes, it is lawful for Customs and Border Patrol to request that you provide your cell phone or laptop to be searched. Understandably, many individuals who are seeking to enter the U.S. have privacy concerns and are wary of having their cell phones and laptops searched. To clarify its policies and procedures, the CBP issued a Privacy Impact Assessment in 2009 outlining its legal authority for searches. Notably, searches of electronic devices can be done with or without suspicion of any criminal activity and your electronic device can be seized for further inspection and/or have its contents copied so that CBP can examine it more fully. Rights that individuals have within the U.S., for example the Constitutional right against searches and seizures without probable cause of criminal activity, do not apply at the border.
You can read CBP’s Privacy Impact Assessment here.
While CBP has had the right to search electronic devices for many years now, there has been a reported sharp increase in CBP officers examining electronic devices. In Fiscal Year 2015, 8,503 individuals had their devices inspected. In Fiscal Year 2016, 19,033 individuals had their devices inspected. In just the first six months of Fiscal Year 2017, 14,993 electronic devices have been inspected. The rate of inspection has nearly quadrupled in just two years. For more information, please see CBP’s Release on Electronic Device Searches Statistics.
What does this mean for the millions of individuals who enter the U.S. every year? The chance of your electronic devices being inspected or of you being placed into secondary inspection in order to view your electronic devices is significantly higher. Please be aware of this when travelling. In particular, this impacts individuals coming from certain countries. For example, while the proposed executive order banning entry for individuals from seven countries is pending in the courts regarding its constitutionality, the CBP is still able to more highly scrutinize individuals from these countries without any grounds for suspicion of any criminal activity. This heightened examination is certainly not just reserved to individuals issuing from the countries contemplated in the ban, and a CBP Officer may find any reason to decide he or she would like to search your electronic device.
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