A massive database has been growing at Customs and Border Protection as CBP officers extract data from electronic devices.
A report in The Washington Post last week said that during a summer briefing, CBP leaders told congressional staff that information from about 10,000 people a year is added to the database.
CBP officials said the data is kept on file for 15 years.
CBP agents routinely inspect phones, laptops, tablets, and other electronic devices when travelers enter the country — including those of American citizens, the Post reported.
In a letter to CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said CBP is wrong for “allowing indiscriminate rifling through Americans’ private records.”
“Innocent Americans should not be tricked into unlocking their phones and laptops,” Wyden wrote.
“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,” he wrote.
Wyden noted in the letter that CBP personnel searching the stored records don’t have to provide any reason for the search.
In a statement to the Post, CBP spokesman Lawrence Payne said CBP conducts “border searches of electronic devices in accordance with statutory and regulatory authorities” and has imposed rules to ensure the searches are “exercised judiciously, responsibly, and consistent with the public trust.”
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The database, known as the Automated Targeting System, is used “to further review, analyze, and assess information CBP obtained from electronic devices associated with individuals who are of a significant law enforcement, counterterrorism” or national security issues, the statement said.
CBP officials retain data only when “absolutely necessary,” Aaron Bowker, CBP’s director of its office of field operations, said in an interview, according to the Post.
However, according to the Post, CBP is keeping quiet about the actual number of Americans who are affected.
“CBP officials declined, however, to answer questions about how many Americans’ phone records are in the database, how many searches have been run or how long the practice has gone on, saying it has made no additional statistics available ‘due to law enforcement sensitivities and national security implications,’” the Post reported.
It was also unclear how many CBP employees had access to the information that’s been collected.
Although Wyden said 2,700 CBP employees can scan the database, Bowker said the actual number is about 3,000.
“You have to have enough operational personnel who are able to do this properly around the clock,” Bowker told the Post. “We have 328 ports of entry. We are a 24/7 operation. You don’t know who’s going to show up where and when.”
A 2018 CBP directive outlines the rules of the program and gives border officials the ability to conduct what is called a “basic search.” That gives agents the ability to look through contacts, photos, call logs, and other content, such as texts or emails. Travelers who do not unlock a phone can have it taken away for up to five days, according to the Post.
If a “reasonable suspicion” exists that a traveler is a “national security concern,” border officials can run an “advanced search” that copies the data on the phone.
CBP relies on a loophole granted by the courts that gives border officials an exemption to the Fourth Amendment requirements of needing a warrant to search a phone or laptop, the Post reported.
Last year, Wyden and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky proposed a law closing that loophole.
“Respecting civil liberties and our Constitution actually strengthens our national security, and Americans should not be forced to surrender their rights or privacy at the border,” Paul said in a news release announcing that bill.
“Our bill will put an end to these intrusive government searches and uphold the fundamental protections of the Fourth Amendment,