Large-Scale Collection of Cell Phone Data at US Borders

The Washington Post is reporting that the US Customs and Border Protection agency is seizing and copying cell phone, tablet, and computer data from “as many as” 10,000 phones per year, including an unspecified number of American citizens. This is done without a warrant, because “…courts have long granted an exception to border authorities, allowing them to search people’s devices without a warrant or suspicion of a crime.”

CBP’s inspection of people’s phones, laptops, tablets and other electronic devices as they enter the country has long been a controversial practice that the agency has defended as a low-impact way to pursue possible security threats and determine an individual’s “intentions upon entry” into the U.S. But the revelation that thousands of agents have access to a searchable database without public oversight is a new development in what privacy advocates and some lawmakers warn could be an infringement of Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.


CBP conducted roughly 37,000 searches of travelers’ devices in the 12 months ending in October 2021, according to agency data, and more than 179 million people traveled that year through U.S. ports of entry.

More articles. Slashdot thread.

Posted on September 19, 2022 at 6:07 AM14 Comments


Geoffrey Nicoletti September 19, 2022 11:30 AM

It is the stepping-stone here that troubles me. Ten years from now does a researcher look back on this as the seed to “x”? Is the US Customs and Border Patrol Agency the only one holding the data…or are there “customers” of the intelligence gathered?

Ted September 19, 2022 12:54 PM

From Sen. Wyden’s letter to CBP Commissioner Magnus:

… CBP does not keep statistics on the number of basic vs. advanced searches, the number of times CBP downloads data into its central database, nor the number of times it searches this database for “national security” purposes

It’s hard to manage what you can’t measure. Sen. Wyden has asked CBP to respond to the concerns in his letter by Oct 31, 2022. I hope they do.

Also does anyone know if a phone’s contents can be read if they’ve been encrypted?

lurker September 19, 2022 1:29 PM

Don’t take a phone when crossing borders, even what you thought were good borders, or at least take an empty burner.

What worries me is what they would do to a phoneless person …

V September 19, 2022 5:18 PM

@lurker: >> What worries me is what they would do to a phoneless person …

As I understand it, you can’t enter Canada without an app.

Aaron September 19, 2022 5:51 PM

How is this not a clear cut violation of the 4th Amendment?

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The legality does not apply only to cases in which a person is under suspicion by law enforcement, it applies to all listed topics at all times, regardless of if criminal activity is suspected or not.

JonKnowsNothing September 19, 2022 6:44 PM


re: How is this not a clear cut violation of the 4th Amendment?

It’s all about the comma. The placement of that squiggly punctuation mark changes the meaning of the paragraph.

General Michael Hayden explained it a long time ago.

  • against unreasonable searches and seizures,

The key word here is UNREASONABLE. Generally meaning out of the ordinary.

So, two things changed.

  • All searches are now considered REASONABLE. There are no unreasonable searches, although warrants are obtained for those odd situations. By Neuvo Definition of Unreasonable == Reasonable no warrant is needed.
  • The prohibition section is for UNREASONABLE searches. Again, the comma and phrasing gets re-parsed from “warrants are needed” to “warrants are optional” or even “warrants are not needed at all”.

There used to be a video of the explanation which happened during in a televised interview debate where General Hayden makes this distinction. The audience and moderator howl with laughter at the mere thought of this faux pas. General Hayden wasn’t laughing at all. He was deadly serious. He knew because he made up these new rules and he got the FISC to go along with them. This has been encoded in the USA legal system for some decades.

Does come as a bit of shock when you figure it out.

Search Terms

Michael Hayden (general)

Michael Vincent Hayden (born March 17, 1945) is a retired United States Air Force four-star general and former Director of the National Security Agency, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Tatütata September 20, 2022 12:51 PM

Family members transiting through major US airports to third-countries in the Carribean and Latin America told me of several incidents in the 80s and 90s of their checked luggage being rifled through, and stuff getting stolen. We’re talking here about innocuous commercial documents and non-food samples, not currency, jewellery or remotely valuable or reprehensible objects. It is improbable that the thefts happened at the originating and terminating airports, for lack of time, and the nature of the missing stuff would rather exonerate baggage handlers.

Add to that the surly manner of border inspection. One crossing made me wonder whether the German Democratic Republic had really disappeared a few years before…

On another occasion, a customs bloke quickly became irritated and threatening as he wasn’t satisfied with my answer to his question “how long are you staying in the US?” I candidly answered “I’m in transit between planes”. He was only satisfied when he got me to say “I will leave your precious little republic in two hours and seventeen minutes on flight ZZ1234 to XXX”. He must have played that scene 50 times a day…

If the goal is to make people avoid US airports and destinations, mission accomplished.

JonKnowsNothing September 20, 2022 10:38 PM

@Tatütata, @Aaron, All

re: Limbo Transit Corridors

The USA and other countries maintain a Limbo Transit Corridor where you are neither IN the country where you are standing and also no longer in the country your left.

  • ex: You take a plane from Country A for a vacation in Country C. You also change planes in Country B. ‘A-> B-> C

If B or C is the USA, there is a Corridor 100 US Miles wide where you are NOT in the USA. In an airport, once you pass the initial security screen you are no longer in the USA. You do not re-enter the USA until you exit the secured area at the destination. Except, there is a 100 mile wide path where you are still considered outside the USA by US Border and Homeland Security, among others. So if you came to visit C City and are staying in a hotel in C City within 100 miles of the airport, you are technically not in the USA but in a Limbo Corridor.

The importance of understanding this, is that our US Laws do no apply to anyone in the Limbo Corridor. Not even if you are a US Citizen.

A common example as noted: You pass through the security screen at the airport. You are waiting patiently for your next plane to start boarding. At any time US Border Agents can detain you. They frequently do this when you are walking to the plane to board it or when exiting the plane after landing and heading to the terminal to collect your gear.

There are no rules, no phone calls, no rights, really there isn’t anything you can do unless or until you comply with what they want. Often the FBI is there to Make You An Offer You Can’t Refuse.

Tactics include: Very cold temps with no jacket or blanket. No toilet facilities. No food or water. No chairs. No windows, clocks or time of day indications. No contact with family, friends. No contacts for legal advice. Frequent interviews with repetitive questions, all promising that if you answer them THIS time you might be able to leave. Demands to unlock your electronic devices. Demands for passwords and login credentials to all social media. Demands for passwords to your personal information: email, banking etc. There isn’t anything they can’t ask you and there isn’t any limit to the duration of this Temporary Detention.

There are also Gotchas in play with laws that you might not be familiar with in your home country. Obscure laws even in the USA. Minor oversights in a form or from filling out the same questionnaire multiple times with a small difference in each version.

The USA isn’t the only country that does this. It’s risk every time you fly internally inside the USA like going from New York to Los Angeles or when you fly internationally like arriving in Los Angeles waiting for a plane flight to New York City and where you will take the final leg to Italy and visit Rome.

There is no 4th Amendment in the Limbo Corridor but everything you do or say or write Will Be Used Against You.

lurker September 20, 2022 11:14 PM


I guess things changed post 9/11. Prior, I had twice experienced airline A flight 1 from foreign parts terminates at LAX; shortly after airline A flight 2 departs LAX for foreign parts. But hapless pax were dumped on the promenade prey to all the hustlers and pimps.

JonKnowsNothing September 21, 2022 12:33 AM

@Lurker, @Tatütata, @Aaron, All

re:Limbo Transit Corridors Texas and Florida

There is a current scandal brewing in the USA, were Governors of several states including, Texas and Florida, have been sending immigrant and asylum seekers who have crossed the US Border entering those states and sending them onward to other states.

In function, the US maintains a treaty and law known as First Safe Haven-Country. The rules are different for people wishing to immigrate to the USA, and people fleeing specific situations in their home countries seeking safety. The processing and paperwork is different. There are rules about what procedures must be done and requirements for all the different groupings of people that wish to come to the USA.

It isn’t uncommon that once all the paperwork and conditions have been filed and researched that people are allowed to move to other areas where they may have family. Normally the local authorities in the destination are notified so that they can provide the needed followup and provide assistance as determined by the variations of rules applied to the different groups.

The scandal is on several issues:

  • It is not clear if the groups of people being transferred, have had all their paperwork completed at point of entry.
  • The destination locations have not received appropriate notice of transit-transfer. Such notification is needed by the local assistance services and legal status.
  • It is not clear if the groups of people undergoing this unannounced transit, traveled with inaccurate information provided by the point of entry location. Enticements, promises of work, and costs of transfer are being checked.

There are laws about forcing people to travel or misleading people to get them to travel to a different location.

However, given the 100 Limbo Transit Corridor, it may also be that these groups of people were not inside the USA until the exited the transport: bus, plane past the 100 mile marker.

It isn’t that this doesn’t happen, it does, all the time. Our normal target in the USA are the homeless-houseless under-served members of our society. We have lots of laws now about where you can and cannot sleep or sit. We have scores of laws making all type of normal activities, like eating a sandwich, a criminal offense. Cities use these laws, to sweep up the homeless-houseless and incarcerate them for these violations. Then local judges made them an offer in our Courts of Law:

  • We will clear your fines from eating a sandwich in the park, sitting on the curb under a shade tree and sleeping in an alcove that offers protection from weather conditions.
  • You must agree to take a ticket on an approved bus, to our selected destination.

  • You will transit immediately.

  • You must agree NOT to return to this area for months-years. If you return you will go directly to jail.

These laws are enacted in nearly every US city. They target the most vulnerable members of our society. The destination varies. Since it is a common tactic, the various providers of services at the destination, keep watch for the banished.

It will be interesting to see how the application of tranfer-forced-transit laws, does or doesn’t fit into the Limbo Transit Corridor.

mellvar September 21, 2022 2:33 PM


re: How is this not a clear cut violation of the 4th Amendment?

The reasoning of the US Supreme Court’s “border search exception” to the 4th Amendment is: the US Constitution stops at the border.

Water Industry Guy September 27, 2022 8:48 AM

@anon “As I understand it, you can’t enter Canada without an app.”

As of Oct 1, use of the ArriveCan app is becoming optional.


“The federal government says it’s dropping all COVID-19 measures at borders on Saturday, meaning travellers will no longer need to provide proof of vaccination when entering Canada or wear masks on planes and trains.”

JonKnowsNothing September 27, 2022 1:02 PM


re: 4th Amendment Warrants Voided Asset Forfeiture

There is a current court case regarding the issuance of 6 search warrants requested by the FBI for the premises of a private company providing bank-style safe deposit boxes.

4 of these warrants are in good form but the remain 2 have a serious problem. The defined problem is in the scope of the requested warrant. The FBI omitted a few important details to the judge issuing the warrants, which was the intention of the FBI, to seize under asset forfeiture laws all the contents of all the safe deposit boxes housed inside the building. Only a few safe deposit boxes were associated directly with the company and those were included in the 4 good warrants.

The company providing the spaces for rent was the focus of the 4 warrants. The other 2 warrants were a seizure of all the other boxes rented to people not associated with any criminal actions.

It was Millions. The FBI opened or rather drilled every box and took the contents: wills, cremains (ashes from cremation), documents, money, coins, stamps, jewelry and photographs.

  • The FBI position is: This is ALL Ours
  • The Courts have said: No It Isn’t
  • The Court also said: the FBI did not declare their intention to seize all the property on the premises.
  • The FBI said: We don’t need to declare anything.

One aspect that is interesting would be the application of this “LEA viewpoint” for off-site storage or off-site processing.


CompanyA hires CompanyB to do TasksXYZ.
CompanyB is known to provide these tasks to many other companies.
They sign a contract.

CompanyA sends information, tapes, downloads, source code etc to CompanyB for this purpose.

Unknown to CompanyA, someone in CompanyB becomes a PersonOfInterest and so CompanyB also becomes a CompanyOfInterest.

LEAs obtain warrants.

LEAs seize everything in CompanyB. All the contents of the building, the bank accounts and all the assets including those assets entrusted to CompanyB by their clients – CompanyA.

Now the LEAs-FBI own all the source code sitting in the code repository, all the backup tapes and the data contained on them. They seize a Cloud Pod and now own all the items contained in the Pod.

A wholesale transfer of ownership to LEAs-FBI.

Kind of boggles…

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