International travelers, citizens and foreigners alike, enjoy reduced privacy protections at ports of entry. Thanks to the “border exception” to the Fourth Amendment, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers do not need reasonable suspicion or probable cause to search electronic devices at airports. This regrettable authority made headlines last year after CBP officers searched phones belonging to innocent American citizens. CBP has updated its electronic device search policy via a new directive. While the directive does include a welcome clarification, it states that CBP can search anyone’s electronic devices without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.
The CBP’s new directive begins by outlining the unfortunate state of the Fourth Amendment at the border and ports of entry. The Fourth Amendment protects “persons, houses, papers, and effects” from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Yet, as Justice Rehnquist wrote in his majority opinion in United States v. Ramsey (1977):
[S]earches made at the border, pursuant to the longstanding right of the sovereign to protect itself by stopping and examining persons and property crossing into this country, are reasonable simply by virtue of the fact that they occur at the border.
In 1985, Rehnquist reiterated this point, writing in his United States v. Montoya de Hernandez (1985) majority opinion:
Routine searches of the persons and effects of entrants are not subject to any requirement of reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or warrant.
CBP conducted numerous warrantless searches of electronic devices last year. Perhaps most notable was the January 2017 case involving Sidd Bikkannavar, an American citizen, member of the CBP Global Entry program, and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer. After arriving from Chile (not exactly a hotbed of international terrorism), a CBP officer at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport asked Bikkannavar to unlock his smartphone, which happened to be NASA property. Despite Bikkannavar pointing out that the phone contained sensitive information, the officer persisted, and Bikkannavar eventually gave up the phone’s passcode.
A month after CBP needlessly interrupted Bikkannavar’s travel, agency officials reportedly stopped another American citizen, Haisam Elsharkawi, from leaving Los Angeles on his way to Saudi Arabia. According to Elsharkawi, CBP officers put him in handcuffs and pressured him into unlocking his phone. The officers released Elsharkawi without charge hours after his plane had left.
Searches of electronic devices at the border are on the rise. According to CBP’s own figures, the number of international travelers processed with electronic device searches in the 2017 fiscal year increased almost 60 percent compared to the 2016 fiscal year. While the number of travelers subjected to these searches represents a small fraction of total international travelers, it’s clear that these warrantless searches have targeted innocent Americans and are unlikely to stop. At a time when the smartphone is an increasingly integral part of modern life, containing most of our intimate and private details, this authority is of acute concern.