If a traveler's phone, tablet or computer ever gets searched at an airport, American border authorities could add data from their device to a massive database that can be accessed by thousands of government officials. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) leaders have admitted to lawmakers in a briefing that its officials are adding information to a database from as many as 10,000 devices every year, The Washington Post reports.
Further, 2,700 CBP officers can access the database without a warrant and without having to record the purpose of their search. These details were revealed in a letter Senator Ron Wyden wrote to CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, where the lawmaker also said that CBP keeps any information it takes from people's devices for 15 years.
In the letter, Wyden urged the commissioner to update CBP's practices so that device searches at borders are focused on suspected criminals and security threats instead of allowing "indiscriminate rifling through Americans' private records without suspicion of a crime." Wyden said CBP takes sensitive information from people's devices, including text messages, call logs, contact lists and even photos and other private information in some cases.
While law enforcement agencies are typically required to secure a warrant if they want to access the contents of a phone or any other electronic device, border authorities are exempted from having to do the same. Wyden also pointed out that travelers searched at airports, seaports and border crossings aren't informed of their rights before their devices are searched. And if they refuse to unlock their electronics, authorities could confiscate and keep them for five days.
As The Post notes, a CBP official previously went on record to say that the agency's directive gives its officers the authority to scroll through any traveler's device in a "basic search." If they find any "reasonable suspicion" that a traveler is breaking the law or doing something that poses a threat to national security, they can run a more advanced search. That's when they can plug in the traveler's phone, tablet or PC to a device that copies their information, which is then stored in the Automated Targeting System database.
CBP director of office of field operations Aaron Bowker told the publication that the agency only copies people's data when "absolutely necessary." Bowker didn't deny that the agency's officers can access the database, though — he even said that the number was bigger than what CBP officials told Wyden. Five percent of CBP's 60,000 personnel have access to the database, he said, which translates to 3,000 officers and not 2,700.
Wyden wrote in his letter:
"Innocent Americans should not be tricked into unlocking their phones and laptops. CBP should not dump data obtained through thousands of warrantless phone searches into a central database, retain the data for fifteen years, and allow thousands of DHS employees to search through Americans’ personal data whenever they want."
Two years ago, the Senator also called for an investigation into the CBP's use of commercially available location data to track people's phones without a warrant. CBP had admitted back then that it spent $500,000 to access a commercial database containing "location data mined from applications on millions of Americans’ mobile phones."