No privacy at borders

As privacy evolves into an everlasting issue in this technologically efficient age, it is important for journalists and citizens alike to recognize these issues and to safeguard themselves from these potential threats.

After whistle blower, Edward Snowden, blew the lid off the NSA spying tactics [1], many digital users have become aware of their electronic footprint as well as cyber security. But what precautions can we take when we decide to visit another country and have our bags and luggage filtered through?

Aside from those with diplomatic immunity, there is practically no rights to privacy when we decide to enter into the United States. [2]

According to the US Department of Homeland Security’s Privacy Impact Assessment for the Border Searches of Electronic Devices, any citizen or visitor of the United States will be subject to any level of scrutiny even without probable cause. [3]

The PDF file clearly reads, ‘both the exam and search may be conducted without a warrant and without suspicion.’ This means that the execution of a secondary examination (after the preliminary check where they glance at your passport) is completely up to US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers and whatever software or algorithm they may be using at the time (more on this later.) Basically, it is up to CBP officers if they want to search you or not.

The manifesto is so broad that Border Officials can interpret it in such a way that any electronic device can be searched and read. And accompanied with the authorization of a senior official or an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent; it  can also be copied without the knowledge of the owner and seized.

When CBP officers decide to check your electronic device, they can arbitrarily choose what they want to see and they can read and copy whatever they choose. More ‘Big Brother-esque’ is the ability for them to hide what they have copied. According to the same Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document: ‘there is no specific receipt given to the traveler if the contents of the device are detained for further review, but the device is returned to the individual.’

This means that border officials can not only randomly search you but they can also seize and copy your electronic files without you knowing!

A safety net that digital users can enforce is to lock their phones and laptops with a password or pin and to encrypt the contents of the device. But even with these precautions, a persistent CBP officer can still override these safety measure to read your emails.

Now it is intuitive for homeland security that visitors be checked and ensured that they are entering the country for positive measures and not nefarious means. But where does one draw the line? With databases and algorithms that spew out random names, anyone can be seen as a ‘flight risk’ even when they are not. [4] Some of these algorithms simply place you under a flight risk just because you have the same name as a suspected terrorist.

Although it is of utmost importance to ensure the safety of a country and its citizens, it is also important to ensure that our individual rights are maintained and that the State does not expand and broaden its rules to take away these rights.

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