If you’re worried about privacy and government intrusion, take note: U.S. customs and border officials can search your iPhone when entering the country, but not your cloud-stored data, without a warrant or even probable cause.
That fact was revealed in a Custom and Border Protection letter sent in response to an inquiry by Sen. Ron Wyden. The letter explains the Department of Homeland Security’s limitations, specifically that it doesn’t have the authority to search data stored solely on cloud services — which includes email and social media accounts. The letter, which was obtained by NBC News, does state that border officers can search an iPhone without consent, or in some cases, without suspicion.
Ostensibly, they can only search through data saved directly to a device’s hard drive, though that still includes call history, texts, contacts, and media like photos and video. Furthermore, the agency uses the word solely in relation to data stored in iCloud or other services. That could leave the door open for agents to potentially search through data that’s stored both on a device and in the cloud.
Four months ago, Wyden asked Homeland Security to clarify its agents’ practice of pressuring Americans to provide passwords and access to social media accounts, a policy that he called “deeply troubling.” The practice also prompted the Democratic senator to team up with several others in April to introduce bipartisan, bicameral legislation that would completely bar border officers from searching or seizing a device without a warrant.
For its part, CBP says that its search practices help combat child pornography, drug trafficking and terrorism. The letter goes on to state that border officials can “detain” an iPhone if travelers refuse to unlock the device or provide a password. The letter did not include any detailed search guidelines or statistics revealing how many smartphones searches are conducted when requested by other agencies. However, the DHS inspector general is expected to publish an audit of the agency’s practices by the end of summer.