- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection defended its authority to search and seize travelers’ electronic devices without warrant Tuesday as the agency faces complaints over a recent uptick in smartphone and laptop inspections.

“All travelers arriving to the U.S. are subject to CBP inspection,” agency spokesman Rob Brisley said in a statement Tuesday. “This inspection may include electronic devices such as computers, disks, drives, tapes, mobile phones and other communication devices, music and other media players and other electronic or digital devices.”

Customs officials have long been able to compel travelers for access to their digital devices. According to recent statistics, however, the agency has recently drastically increased the number of inspection.

The CBP performed 23,877 “electronic media searches” during fiscal 2016, or more than five-times the number of searches conducted the year before, Mr. Brisley said in a statement sent to Ars Technica Tuesday. He downplayed the surge of inspections, however, and said the thousands of searches conducted last year accounted to less than one-hundredth of one percent of travelers entering the U.S.

These searches “are often integral to a determination of an individual’s intentions upon entry and provide additional information relevant to admissibility determinations under immigration law,” and are “critical” to the detection of evidence related to terrorism, human trafficking, drug smuggling and child pornography, the spokesman added.

“Keeping America safe and enforcing our nation’s laws in an increasingly digital world depends on our ability to lawfully examine all materials entering the U.S.,” his statement said.

Nonetheless, the agency’s practices have come under fire in recent weeks after reports concerning the five-fold increase in electronic searches surfaced in tandem with the reactions of individuals personally affected, including Sidd Bikkannavar, an American-born NASA engineer who recently said he was detained upon arriving in Houston and asked to surrender his phone and the PIN number that protects it.

“It’s a matter of the privacy of anyone who interacted with me through that phone,” he told CNN afterwards. “I may be willing to give up privacy but I didn’t make that decision for those people.”

Existing policy give CBP agents the authority to search and seize individuals and devices located within 100 miles inland from any external U.S. boundary without a warrant. Privacy advocate Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said last month he plans to introduce legislation that would require officials to obtain a warrant before asking travelers to surrender their cellphones.

Border agents inspected roughly 5,000 devices in January, NBC News reported this week — more than the total number of electronic searches conducted during the entirety of 2016.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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