According to a new report from Customs and Border Protection (and Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the border searches of phones and laptops nearly doubled since the previous year. The Customs and Border Protection report, revealed an increase of about 80 percent in the first six months of the DHS fiscal year. Device searches rose from 8,383 in October to 14,993 in March.
The report drastically contradicted a number provided by an anonymous Department of Homeland Security spokesperson. A spokesperson from the DHS spoke, earlier this year, with NBC about the searches. He or she told NBC that as many as 5,000 searches occurred in the month of February alone. The new report points to a number of searches that effectively halves the initial numbers given to NBC. And for those asking themselves why a report from Homeland Security is being compared with a report from Customs and Border Protection: the Department of Homeland Security is basically a parent organization for both CBP and ICE, along with US Coast Guard, the TSA, and the Secret Service.
ZDNet spoke with a CBP spokesperson who could not explain why more electronic devices are being searched. The discrepancy between the figures could not be explained by the spokesperson. The CBP statement said that they “adapted and adjusted its actions to align with current threat information.” Homeland Security did not answer any questions regarding the numbers and possible differences.
In an email, however, Mary Ellen Callahan, the former chief privacy officer of the DHS wrote that the increased number of searches was “a conscious strategy on CBP to better leverage the border search loophole.” This so-called ”loophole” allows the CBP to search any electronic device that crosses the border, both incoming and outgoing. This includes, according to CBP documentation, “any item that may contain information,” such as computers, CDs, drives, tapes, cell phones and “other communication devices,” other electronic media recording or storage device, and “any other electronic or digital devices.”
“At no point during a border search of electronic devices is it necessary to ask the traveler for consent to search,” CBP documents explain. The warrantless searches play a key role in the entire existence of ICE and CBP, and they argue the searches play a similarity key role in the national security of the United States.
The searches are extremely controversial in the United States and carry a reputation for being invasive in both a physical and figurative sense.
From “Privacy Impact Assessment for the Border Searches of Electronic Devices, the DHS’s most recent publication:
“CBP or ICE may instead copy the contents of the electronic device for a more in-depth border search at a later time. For CBP, the decision to copy data contained on an electronic device requires supervisory approval. Copying may take place where CBP or ICE does not want to alert the traveler that he is under investigation; where facilities, lack of training, or other circumstances prevent CBP or ICE from performing the search at secondary inspection; or where the traveler is unwilling or is unable to assist, or it is not prudent to allow the traveler to assist in the search (such as providing a password to log on to a laptop).”
This discrepancy, unless one of the agencies find a sound explanation, will only cause more distrust for the CBP, ICE, and the DHS.