US border cops harvest info from citizens' phones, build massive database

UPDATE: This story was updated at

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) "routinely conducts warrantless searches of Americans' devices" every year, in a number of cases downloading texts, photos, call logs, and more into a central database where it's stored for 15 years and searchable by some 2,700 federal employees.

This, according to US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who on Thursday sent a letter [PDF] to the federal agency urging it to end this practice, which he called an "egregious violation of Americans' rights."

While the US Supreme Court requires law enforcement to show probable cause before obtaining a search warrant for someone's electronic devices, CBP abuses the so-called border-search exception to the Fourth Amendment to search phones and laptops without suspecting the traveler of committing a crime, Wyden said.

This type of "basic search" allows border patrol agents to view people's text messages and photos as they travel into the United States.

If the agent has "reasonable suspicion" that someone has broken the law or poses a "national security concern," then, with a supervisor's approval, the border cop can escalate to an advanced search: downloading, if possible, data from the device into this sizable database that Department of Homeland Security staff can search.

According to the Beaver State senator, CBP doesn't keep records on the number of basic versus advanced searches, how many times its agents download data into its central database, nor how frequently Homeland Security searches this database.

Wyden's letter cited a June briefing with CBP during which federal employees estimated saving data — including instant chat conversations, call logs, contact lists, pictures, and other sensitive data — from "less than 10,000" phones every year.

"CBP officials also revealed that government personnel querying the data are not promoted to record the purpose of the search, even though auditable records of this sort are an important safeguard against abuse," he wrote.

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