'Stranger Things' At Border Control: Electronic Device Searches Increasingly Common
Approximately 752 individuals are denied entry to the U.S. each day, and although canine cops certainly play a major role with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the digital age has brought a new type of search to which many more of us are likely susceptible: electronic device searches.
Also called “digital strip searches” because they can reveal exceedingly private information, searches of laptops and smartphones by CBP more than doubled from 2015 (8,500) to 2016 (19,000). In just the first half of 2017, 15,000 travelers have had their devices searched by CBP. Both U.S. citizens and non-citizens are subject to device searches, which have made for resulting stories some might characterize as “stranger than fiction.”
Non-Citizens Denied U.S. Entry After Electronic Device Searches
In 2016, Canadian photojournalist Ed Ou was headed to the Dakota Access Pipeline for the Canadian Broadcasting Company but was turned away at the border after a search of his phone. In February of this year, Canadian citizens Fadwa Alaoui and Fadela Boutaleb were denied entry to the U.S. after officials viewed Muslim prayer videos and inspirational speeches on their phones.
And then there’s the story of a 28-year-old woman from British Columbia who was turned away at the U.S.-Canadian border after the discovery of an email in her “sent” folder. According to VICE, in a message to her doctor, Chelsea (last name withheld) had described an accidental fentanyl overdose she survived during which she had intended to take cocaine. After the phone search, she was questioned by border officials, admitted to having experimented with illegal drugs in the past (though not in the past year) and was denied entry.
These are just a few examples that have made news and have left non-citizens wondering whether they can refuse to hand over their phones or provide passwords at U.S. borders. The simple answer is yes, but in doing so, they risk being denied entry on the spot.
U.S. Citizens and Electronic Device Searches
U.S. citizens aren’t immune to device searches, either. In early 2017, NASA optical engineer Sidd Bikkannavar, who was born in the U.S., was pressured by border officials to hand over and unlock his work-issued phone. As a frequent traveler, Bikkannavar was also a member of the government’s Global Entry program, which “allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.”
Bikkannavar is now one of 11 plaintiffs (10 U.S. citizens and a lawful permanent resident) suing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with the backing of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), alleging the searches violate the 4th amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. The suit “seeks to establish that the government must have a warrant based on probable cause to suspect a violation of immigration or customs laws before conducting such searches.”
Interestingly, whether U.S. citizens can actually be turned away at the border has never been explicitly addressed by Congress or the Supreme Court of the United States. At the very least, however, U.S. citizens — unlike foreign nationals — are entitled to request an attorney. Moreover, a denial of entry to the U.S. without a hearing would probably be considered a denial of due process rights.
Know Before You Go
Heaton, best known as Jonathan Byers on Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” wasn’t charged or arrested for the incident at LAX, and as of yet there is no word on whether his ban will be for life, which the U.S. could impose.
Still, his story is a good reminder that no matter your nationality, if you’ll be crossing a U.S. border, it’s best to research the applicable rules — and your corresponding rights — before leaving on your trip to hopefully avoid your own “stranger things” story.