With the number of border searches of electronic devices increasing every year, how can travelers keep their digital data safe?
Our lives are extensively documented on the phones, laptops, and other electronic devices we carry. Our devices can store an unprecedented amount of highly personal information about us, including private emails and text messages, photos and videos, web browsing history, and other data that can reveal our political and religious affiliations, medical conditions, family and romantic lives, financial status, and much more. People in many professions, such as lawyers and journalists, have a heightened need to keep their digital data confidential.
The U.S. Constitution generally places strong limits on the government’s ability to pry into our private lives. At the U.S. border, however, those limits are not as strong—a fact EFF is working to change. The “border search exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement has traditionally permitted border agents to conduct warrantless and suspicionless searches on the legal assumption that travelers have negligible privacy interests in the contents of their luggage.
But electronic devices turn this reasoning on its head: your privacy interests in your phone, laptop, or tablet are extraordinary given the vastness of storage capacity, variety of content, and personal aspects of your life that electronic devices contain. EFF argues that a warrant based on probable cause, issued by a judge, is required for border device searches.
It’s past time for a new analysis of privacy at the border. EFF is working on many fronts to protect your digital rights when you cross the U.S. border:
- Read our comprehensive travel guide on how to protect your digital data when crossing the U.S. border, as well as our pocket guides.
- Learn about our case with ACLU, Alasaad v. Nielsen
, where we are representing 11 plaintiffs in challenging under the First and Fourth Amendments the U.S. government’s practice of conducting warrantless, suspicionless border searches of electronic devices.
- Read one of our many amicus briefs: United States v. Williams (10th Circuit).
- Read our analysis of proposed legislation.
- Read our analysis of CBP’s current (2018) border device search policy.
Check out all of our work on border searches below, and join EFF to help support our efforts.
Some Options If Your Device Was Seized or You're Repeatedly Referred to Secondary Inspection
- If your device was seized, did you get the name and contact information of a CBP or ICE supervisor when you received the custody receipt (Form 6051D)? If so, try contacting them.
- File a complaint with the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP).
- File a complaint with CBP.
- Contact ICE (e.g., Office of Information Governance and Privacy or Office of Diversity and Civil Rights).
- File a DHS civil rights/civil liberties complaint.
- Contact the DHS Inspector General.
- For US persons: Contact your senators or congressional representative, and ask them to contact CBP/ICE on your behalf.
- File a Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act request. You can use iFOIA.org (managed by Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press), or submit a request directly to CBP via FOIAonline (note that ICE does not participate in FOIAonline).