DHS Documents Show Harassment And Intrusive Device Searches Are A Common Occurrence At US Borders

from the like-we-really-expected-docs-to-show-gracious-paragons-of-restraint dept

This is apparently the price we pay to live in the Land of the Free:

Grievances over lost privacy run through a trove of roughly 250 complaints by people whose laptops and phones were searched without a warrant as they crossed the United States border. Filed with the Department of Homeland Security since 2011, mostly during the Obama administration, these stories add a personal dimension to a growing debate over rights, security and technology.

There are nearly 100 pages of long, detailed complaints in the document [PDF] turned over by the DHS in response to the Knight Institute’s’ FOIA request. The incidents detailed are troubling, seemingly going beyond what’s needed to actually secure the nation’s borders. Multiple complaints show intrusive searches and questioning are routine, even if the destinations traveled to are equally routine.

My fiance and our families along with 38 guests were there to celebrate our wedding, While going through Customs again I was asked to take a seat on the wall. but this time my wife was told to do the same. After 10 minutes a customs officer approached vs and told us to go with him. This time both my bags and my wifes bags were searched. Along with being searched the officer asked a series of very personal questions about my background. I answered the questions to the best of my ability. He then proceeded to ask me questions if I was ever charged with rape or child molestation. Even when I gave him a stern no he asked the question three more times. All this is going on while my newlywed wife is standing right next to me. I do not see why is was necessary for your officer to talk to me that way and treat me like that in front of my wife. My background proves that I have never been charged with either offense.


As soon as I got out of the car I was questioned by the custom officer who was there to inspect the car and he wanted to have proof that I had a P2 because I told him I work in the states as a singer. When I was inside the customs officer at the booth questioned me then went outside to check on the status of my vehicle. Once he was back inside he then asked me to enter a room and had another female customs officer along with him. Once we were inside he joked and said the reason for the female officer to be present was because he didn’t want me to feel like he was hitting on me as he was sure it happens a lot with other customs officers. He had my phone along with another passengers and asked me to open only mine although they were both locked. He also told me that he had the right to do this without my permission. His reason for doing this was on the passenger’s phone there was a picture of me and he felt he needed to make sure I wasn’t in the U.S for escorting purposes. I told him I am a singer and also do a lot of modeling and he was my boyfriend and I don’t feel that was a valid reason to go through my personal property and that I felt he was taking it to far by accusing me of being an escort. He told me once again that he could do this and that he didn’t need my permission and that I had no idea of the high tech devices that they had in there that would make the average person crazy if they knew what they could do.


I visit my cousins in Canada with my wife and children once in a while with my automobile. Every time I cross the American border to return to my home in Rochester, New York I get detained for 4 plus hours. Four to Five officials come to my car and they lead my family and I to the border. They lock my family and I in a room for hours. Also an official always comes from Buffalo to question me. They make me fill out an information sheet they go through my children’s and wife’s cell phones, laptop, and purses. After having all of our possessions and information, they still take 4 plus hours to release us.


My laptop was detained by CBP officer March 13th at Denver Airport. This was the second time in a row I was subjected to additional screening and talking as officer described it. They told me the reason was, because we have had problems with other people with J2 Visa. Is this REALLY a valid reason to detain my personal items, because CBP has problems with someone else? DHS gave my laptop back to my wife. After demanding it they gave her a receipt that shows EIGHT persons have been handling my personal laptop computer and external hard drive. They told at the same time that all my files were copied and to be reviewed.


During the complainants visit of the site of a historical monument, a worker asked complainant if he would like to leave his bag in the care of the museum workers. When complainant returned for the bag, the FBI had seized and placed all of complainants belongings across tables. FBI questioned complainant for a couple of hours and scanned and shipped his laptop to the FBI office in long Beach. Complainant has experienced difficulties flying internationally and even domestically since this incident… Upon return to the United States, the DHS questioned the complainant at LAX because they thought complainant was the owner of his brothers store. Complainants brother was arrested for possession and selling counterfeit merchandise in April 2010… The LAX DHS searched through complainants computer,phones, and other belongings for approximately 5 to 6 hours.

For the most part, DHS complaints are as effective as shouting into the void. Until 2015, there were no redress options available to citizens receiving extra screening or banned from flying. A series of lawsuits finally forced the DHS to at least tell affected travelers they were forbidden from traveling, but the agency still relies on court decisions saying almost all rights are waived within 100 miles of US borders. Those who aren’t US citizens are even more screwed.

There have been a handful of legislative efforts to force DHS, CBP, and TSA to limit intrusive searches of electronic devices, but so far nothing has landed on the president’s desk. As of now, DHS components barely have to conjure up reasonable suspicion to search devices’ contents, and little more than that to seize these items indefinitely.

This is the status quo — or at least would be if it had remained in stasis since 2001. But it constantly appears to be getting worse. And there won’t be any improvement for the next four years at least. This administration treats foreign citizens as criminals and Trump’s DOJ has made “securing the borders” one of its priorities. Carrying out this objective hasn’t been left to smarter processes or better use of intelligence, but rather taken the form of hyper-aggressive enforcement and further diminishing of rights near our nation’s borders.

Filed Under: , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “DHS Documents Show Harassment And Intrusive Device Searches Are A Common Occurrence At US Borders”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Jan 2nd, 2018 @ 5:02am

Wiping the hard disks, and reinstalling the OS on company owned devices, before letting employees take them on international trips, does break any laws.

So if your boss is wiping devices and reinstalling the OS and all programs, before letting you take a company owned devices abroad, he/she is is breaking any laws.

Anonymous Coward says:

Omnipresent Taint of Israel

One of the reasons for the hostile attitude and aggressive tactics of American cops of all kinds (especially federal, but also state & local) may be that many of them have been trained in Israel or by Israelis, or using Israeli-authored training manuals, and even those with seeingly no links to Israel are (often unknown to them) trained to use policing methods originally developed in Israel that have since become thoroughly ingrained in US police culture.

As a result, we are all basically reduced to Palestinians.


Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Omnipresent Taint of Israel

GlobalResearch.ca is essentially InfoWars with more anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.

A decade ago they were publishing North American Union, Amero and 9/11 conspiracies. (Yes, of course they blame Israel for that too.)

These days they’re little more than a news feed for Russia Today and the Kremlin-run Sputnik news agency.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Omnipresent Taint of Israel

I’ve always been given to understand that Israel’s border- and transportation-related security measures are more effective while simultaneously being less biased, privacy-invasive, and so forth, than those used in the United States.

At a minimum, I’ve certainly seen it claimed at least once that we’d do better to adopt the methods used in Israel in place of those currently used by the TSA.

This is the first time I’ve seen it claimed that we’re already using the Israeli methods, much less that this is a bad thing.

Another anonymous coward says:

border searches

Given the number of people over the years who have been willing to sell out US security for fame or money, and the ease of carrying huge amounts of US or corporate secrets to sell, I have ZERO problem with this.

We don’t have to show papers or submit to searches when traveling within the US so this is only a problem for rich, entitled people who may very well be doing things that make them suspicious.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: border searches

We don’t have to show papers or submit to searches when traveling within the US…

…other than within 100 miles of any border, with the coasts are considered borders. This covers about two thirds of the US population.

In any case this doesn’t stop secrets from leaving the US. It’s a concern for data coming into the US. (One easily remedied by keeping your data on a server instead of your phone or laptop, and accessing it only once you’ve crossed the border.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: border searches

Only so long as your data is encrypted before you send it into the cloud, and using a secure enough algorithm. The cloud is only as trustworthy as the entity hosting the data, or as secure as the location of the server.

A cloud server is still a piece of hardware that you have no way of checking, whether it’s in a locked room and hardly visited in person or in an office and available to anyone nearby. And how is your data kept from being accessed remotely by anyone other than you?

Our data is only as safe as knowing who else could copy it or see it.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: border searches

I’m talking about private servers – company or personal – not the major cloud services. I have my own home email and file servers for example.

That’s not 100% secure, but then nothing is. It is however effectively secure against border searches, by simply not having sensitive data on your device when you cross the border.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 border searches

User name and password. They can’t force you to turn that over.

(Ok, America can and does kidnap the occasional visitor and send them to a third country for torture if the visitor doesn’t give them the answers they want. But that’s pretty rare.)

(And Americans can be held indefinitely for not unlocking their phone, but that depends on other indications that they’ve committed a crime.)

Another anonymous coward says:

Re: Re: border searches

I have often traveled within 100 miles of our borders and never been searched or asked for papers. Of course, if you are boarding a plane with a flight plan taking it across the border or a train destined to cross the border, the security people can search you where the train station or airport is since they can’t search as you cross.

Still, a rich, entitled person problem.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: If the constitution doesn't apply....

The idea is not so much that the Constitution (or rather, specifically, the Fourth Amendment) does not apply.

The idea as I understand it is, rather, that searches pursuant to enforcement of the rules which govern crossing of the country’s borders are de-facto not “unreasonable search”es under the terms of the Fourth Amendment (thus, not requiring a warrant unless other circumstances render them unreasonable), and that any place close enough to a border that someone who crossed illegally could have gotten there in a sufficiently short amount of time is within the jurisdiction of those who conduct border-enforcement searches.

On its face that doesn’t sound terribly problematic, and back when the precedents which established that border-enforcement searches are presumptively reasonable were set, it probably wasn’t; back then, travel was slow enough that “close enough to a border” probably meant only a mile or two, and almost certainly no more than 10 to 20 miles. It’s only when you factor in A: the speed of modern travel (such that anywhere within 100 miles of a border is considered “close enough” to qualify) and B: the fact that airports capable of hosting international flights are considered to qualify as “borders” that you get the “exception swallows the rule” clearly-excessive results we have today.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: If the constitution doesn't apply....

The inland highway “checkpoints” (search & detention factories) that were ostensibly constructed to catch illegal aliens turned out to have a much bigger purpose — to ensnare citizens traveling with unlawful drugs, guns, and other contraband. So even if they fail to catch a single illegal alien, they are still guaranteed to stay in operation as 4th Amendment free shakedown zones that forever pretends to exist for another purpose.


NeghVar (profile) says:

returned items at US border

My digital forensics professor told us (the class) of a time he returned from the International Conference on Digital Forensics & Cyber Crime. Upon reentry, all his electronic device were confiscated. laptop, tablet, and 2 smart phones. After 4+ hours, the laptop, tablet, and one of the phones were returned. The other had to be sent to a lab for further investigation, so they said. He never received that phone back and his laptop was inoperable.

freedomfan (profile) says:

Why do they need to search devices at all?

How does bringing data (whatever it happens to be) into the country constitute a threat to the country? Or a crime at all? Data isn’t drugs, or trafficking minors for sex, or terrorism, or whatever the buggaboo of the day is.

Any response I have heard to that question tends to fall into the framework of "but the data might be evidence of a crime", which it certainly might be. So, show that the crime has been committed and probable cause that the person whose stuff is being searched committed the specific crime and then search his stuff. And, if the government actually has all that, then they wouldn’t have any trouble getting a warrant. So, why not just go the full distance and pretend this is America and get the g*ddamned warrant?

Instead, what we have is a sort of a 100-mile-fishing-expedition policy.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Why do they need to search devices at all?

As I understand it, there are two factors.

One is, indeed, (at least closely akin to) “might be evidence of a crime”: that information on the device might serve to indicate that the person coming into the country may be intending to carry out criminal, or (more to the point of those justifying it) outright terrorist, actions.

The other is that border enforcement is also customs enforcement, and that includes enforcement of intellectual-property rules in regard to importing copyrighted / trademarked / etc. things. Bringing certain copyrighted, trademarked, etc., information into the country – without due authorization from the holder of the intellectual-property right – can indeed itself be a crime.

For good or ill, there seems to be a long-established principle that it is presumptively reasonable to search the effects of people coming into the country for customs-enforcement reasons, regardless of whether there even is a suspicion that any crime may have been committed – and that includes intellectual-property-related customs enforcement.

It’s just the government’s good luck that they can find things useful for other purposes in the course of carrying out that sort of customs search. (Though IIRC they can’t necessarily use what they find for other purposes without getting a post-search warrant first.)

If you want to counter that, you may need to start by developing arguments against that initial (long-established) presumption in general, rather than against the specific cases of it where information is involved – because as long as that foundation stands, overturning the things which are built on it is going to be difficult.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...