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U.S. Border Patrol Agents Step Up Cellphone Searches


As the Trump administration looks to carry out extreme vetting of those who want to enter the U.S., one screening practice has already been amped up. In 2016, the number of people asked to hand over their cell phones and passwords by Customs and Border Protection agents increased almost threefold over the year before. NPR's Brian Naylor reports this is happening to both foreign visitors and American citizens.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It happened to Sidd Bikkannavar in January. He was returning from a trip to Chile and at the Houston airport was told to report to passport control by Customs and Border Protection, CBP.

SIDD BIKKANNAVAR: And the CBP officer started a series of questions and instructions. It was all pretty benign and uneventful. He ultimately told me to hand over my phone and give the password to unlock it.

NAYLOR: Bikkannavar is an American citizen. In fact, he's a NASA engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

BIKKANNAVAR: You know, as politely as I could, I refused. I told him I wasn't allowed to give up the password. I have to protect access. It's a work-issued phone. So I pointed out the NASA barcodes and labels on the phone.

NAYLOR: But all that didn't matter to the CBP agents who continued to insist and handed Bikkannavar a document warning there'd be consequences if Bikkannavar didn't go along. And so he did. Now, you might be wondering - doesn't the Constitution protect Americans from this sort of thing? Well, it turns out the law isn't entirely clear. CBP maintains it has the authority to look through everyone's phones at border crossings and airport customs checkpoints. Here's Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly before a Senate panel last week.


JOHN KELLY: 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.

NAYLOR: In 2016, there were just under 24,000 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 ACLU in Washington, says it's part of a pattern.

NEEMA SINGH GULIANI: I mean, 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 administration.

NAYLOR: The ACLU says the government ought to obtain a search warrant before demanding the password for people's phones or laptops. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden thinks so, too. He's sponsored legislation that would require the government to get a probable cause warrant before it can look through such devices. Republican Rand Paul and others from both parties and both chambers are co-sponsoring the bill.

RON WYDEN: My hope is 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.

NAYLOR: 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.

BIKKANNAVAR: I have no problem with government or authority, and I've always put a certain amount of trust in our elected government. And 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 - you know, to be looking out for everyone's best interests.

NAYLOR: 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. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.