Homeland security misreported number of electronics searches, officials say

Sam Thielman
The homeland security department searched far fewer devices than it initially reported, officials say. Photograph: JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images/Blend Images

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it misreported its internal count of travelers’ electronic devices searched at the border, meaning the surge in the number of recorded searches was not as dramatic as it initially reported.

The CPB has revised its estimate of its 2016 searches of travelers’ devices including cellphones, tablets, and laptops downward from about 25,000 to about 19,000.

It has also revised its 2015 numbers upward from 5,000 to 8,500 devices. With the adjusted figures, the number of times the service searched travelers’ electronics more than doubled between 2015 and 2016, rather than quintupling as previously reported. The service blamed the mistake on “an anomaly” in a February system upgrade.

Jennifer Evanitsky, spokesperson for the DHS’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service, told the Guardian last month that the government’s internal documents contained errors. CBP is currently being sued by Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute for its “suspicionless” searches of travelers’ devices, which lawmakers including Oregon Senator Ron Wyden have claimed violate due process. DHS granted itself the authority to search electronics “with or without individualized suspicion” in 2009.

CBP says it has the right to order travelers to unlock their devices; if they refuse, it says it can hold the device itself. The service claims it has never denied entry to a US citizen or permanent resident, but its agents have reportedly choked a US citizen until he relinquished his cellphone and forced others to wait in detention for hours until finally unlocking their devices, according to an NBC News report.

On Tuesday, CBP defended the practice of searching travelers’ private data without cause. “No court has concluded that the border search of electronic devices requires a warrant,” wrote a CBP spokesperson in a statement emailed to the Guardian.

“Electronic device searches are integral in some cases to determining an individual’s intentions upon entering the United States,” said John Wagner, CBP’s deputy executive assistant commissioner, office of field operations, in the same statement.

But Katie Fallow, a lawyer for the Knight Institue, said: “Even the revised numbers show a startling increase in device searches, raising the concern that they’re being driven more by technical capability than actual need. The government shouldn’t be searching the devices we use to store our texts, emails, and family photos, without first demonstrating good reason to do so.”

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