Data released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) this week show the number of phone and laptop searches conducted at the U.S. border have nearly doubled in the last year.
Device searches rose 80 percent — from 8,383 in October 2015 to March 2016 to 14,993 in October 2016 to March 2017, the first six months of the agency’s fiscal year, the data show.
The agency noted the searches affected just 0.008 percent of the nearly 190 million travelers who arrived in the U.S. during that time frame — a period during which the CBP processed more than 1 million travelers a day.
There is some discrepancy between the figures released by CBP and those reportedly recorded by the Department of Homeland Security. NBC News, citing a DHS official, reported law enforcement agents conducted 5,000 searches of devices in February alone. CBP statistics show slightly fewer than 3,000.
While the numbers may not match up, it does appear there is a consensus that device searches are on the rise despite questions about the legality.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2014 a warrant must be obtained to search a person’s cell phone or other electronic devices, making such searches at the border unconstitutional. However, the CBP said the searches are legal because "no court has concluded that the border search of electronic devices requires a warrant, and CBP's use of this authority has been repeatedly upheld.” CBP practices are protected by the nebulous state of the U.S. border where constitutional rights do not always extend.
The number of device searches is expected to continue rising as the Trump administration implements its “extreme vetting” practices at the border. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly told a House committee in February U.S. visitors could be asked to surrender passwords for their social media accounts for examination by law enforcement.
Reports also have indicated the Trump administration is considering the possibility of requiring people traveling to the U.S. to provide cell phone contacts, bank records, social media passwords and other personal information.
Earlier this month, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced the Protecting Data at the Border Act, which extends the requirement for a warrant to search devices to law enforcement officers operating on the border, and would require law enforcement to make Americans aware of their rights.