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Border inspections of electronic devices hits record high

Published:Friday | January 12, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Border inspections of electronic devices hits record high

The United States government inspected a record number of international travellers' electronic devices last year, expanding a practice that has drawn alarm from privacy advocates.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced Friday that its border agents inspected 30,200 phones and other electronic devices in fiscal year 2017, which ended in September - a nearly 60 per cent spike from 2016, when 19,051 devices were searched.

But the agency stressed the searches represent just a tiny fraction - 0.007 per cent of arriving international travellers - out of more than 397 million.

"In this digital age, border searches of electronic devices are essential to enforcing the law at the US border and to protecting the American people," CBP's deputy executive assistant commissioner John Wagner said in a statement.

The searches are aimed at combatting terrorism, child pornography and other crimes. But the practice has drawn fire from privacy advocates, who argue the government shouldn't be able to search devices without warrants or probable cause.

CBP officials credit the spike in part to the fact that people now carry more devices - often several at a time - along with growing traveller volume and risk assessments.

The agency on Friday also released an updated written direction that clarifies how passwords and cloud data should be handled, among other changes.

The new rules make clear that agents are only allowed to inspect information physically present on a device - and not information stored remotely, such as on the cloud.

To prevent officers from accessing information they shouldn't, they are now required to request that travellers turn off their devices' network connectivity, or disable it themselves.

Passwords provided by travellers to access their phones, computers, tablets and other devices must also be deleted

or destroyed immediately following a search, the directive says.

The directive also differentiates between basic searches, during which officers can scroll through passengers' contacts, photos and other material without reasonable suspicion of criminal behaviour, and advance searches, in which devices are connected to external equipment so their contents can be reviewed or stored.

That more intense search now requires the approval of a supervisor and reasonable suspicion that a passenger is violating the law.

The increase in searches comes as the Trump administration has moved to ramp up border security and overhaul the country's legal immigration system.

- AP