As the Trump administration considers steps to implement what the president has called extreme vetting of foreigners at the border, one aspect of security screening has already been amped up.
The number of people who have been asked to hand over their cellphones and passwords by Customs and Border Protection agents has increased nearly threefold in recent years. This is happening to American citizens as well as foreign visitors.
It happened to Sidd Bikkannavar on Jan. 30, 10 days after President Trump's inauguration. He was returning from a trip to Chile, where he took part in his hobby, racing solar-powered cars. At the Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Bikkannavar was told to report to passport control by CBP officers. He was asked a series of questions, all "pretty benign and uneventful," he tells NPR, and was then told "to hand over my phone, and give the password to unlock it."
Bikkannavar is an American citizen, and had enrolled in the Global Entry program, which for a fee gives "low-risk travelers" expedited processing through customs, after a background check. Bikkannavar is also a NASA engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Bikannavar says he "politely as I could," told the CBP officer "I wasn't allowed to give up the password." It was a work-issued phone, Bikkannavar says he told the agent, pointing out the NASA bar codes and labels on the phone.
But it didn't matter to the CBP officer, who continued to insist, and handed Bikkannavar a document warning there would be consequences if Bikkannavar didn't go along. And so he handed over the phone.
Now you might be wondering, doesn't the Constitution protect U.S. citizens from this sort of thing? Well, it turns out, the law isn't entirely clear.
Customs and Border Protection maintains it has the authority to look through everyone's phones at border crossings and airport customs checkpoints. In an appearance before the Senate Homeland Security Committee last week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said such demands were, in general, "just like an American citizen coming in and having his bags searched, at the port of entry. Generally speaking, it's done for a reason."
In 2016, there were just under 23,877 devices searched by CBP agents; the year before, about 8,500. Kelly says such searches "aren't routine," and that the numbers haven't ticked up appreciably since President Trump took office.
But Neema Singh Guliani, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, sees the cellphone searches as part of a pattern. "It's hard not to view these searches in the broader context of some of the rhetoric and the actions that have been taken" by the Trump administration.
The ACLU says the government ought to obtain a search warrant before demanding the password for someone's phone or laptop. Sen. Ron Wyden agrees. The Oregon Democrat has sponsored legislation that would require the government to get a probable-cause warrant before it can look through such devices. Republican Sen. Rand Paul and others from both parties and both chambers are co-sponsoring the bill.
Wyden says he hopes that "in a very polarized time, Americans of all political philosophies are going to say they'd like to have our agents at the borders focus on criminals and terrorists, rather than wasting their time thumbing through the personal phones and memorabilia of our people."
Wyden says Americans' constitutional rights "shouldn't disappear at the border."
NASA scientist Bikkannavar says the episode has given him some doubts about the government he works for. "I have no problems with government or authority, and I've always put a certain amount of trust in our elected government," he says. "I guess after this event and with everything else going on, the new travel policies, I guess I have to question how much I really trust the government to be looking out for everyone's best interest."
The ACLU says Americans can refuse to give CBP agents their passwords, but at the risk of being detained and having their devices taken from them. Foreign travelers can be denied access to the country if they refuse to comply.