Can U.S. Border (CBP) Officials Legally Search a U.S. Citizen's Electronic Devices?

How much privacy can you expect when coming back to the the U.S. after international travel?

Updated by , J.D.

Whether you were born in the U.S., naturalized, or derived or acquired citizenship from U.S. citizen parents, your status as a U.S. citizen gives you important benefits when traveling. Your U.S. passport is a powerful document, giving you protection by the U.S. government when traveling and the right to be readmitted upon your return. You are likely accustomed to receiving the full scope of protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution when dealing with authorities at the U.S. borders and other ports of entry.

But how much privacy can you expect when coming back to the the U.S. after international travel? This is a question that has been asked by many lately, as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have increasingly insisted that U.S. citizens not only undergo the normal questioning and possibly luggage search, but hand over their smartphones, iPads, tablets, laptops, and other electronic devices, along with the passwords thereto, for search and possibly longer-term seizure.

It's not just suspected criminals who have being asked for access. Among that cases that have made the news are an Apple employee and various journalists. Refusing to give CBP officials access to one's phone or other electronic device hasn't worked—entrants are likely to have an unpleasant encounter at a minimum, and possibly have their devices seized with an order to return at a later date.

This is a level of scrutiny that goes to one's very sense of privacy. Your entire personal life—what political party you support, who you're dating, what you buy online, and where you've been lately—is probably shown in the texts, emails, photos, and other sources of information that live on your digital devices.

Thus the question many U.S. citizens have asked is, don't I have some level of privacy protection when I'm merely coming back from a trip to, say, London or Hong Kong?

Does the U.S. Constitution Protect U.S. Citizen's Privacy?

Interestingly, there is no right to privacy explicitly set forth in the U.S. Constitution or federal law. Privacy is a relatively modern concept. The Supreme Court has, however, inferred the existence of a Constitutional right to privacy. Upon this basis, it has struck down laws that, for example, criminalized sodomy and contraceptive use. It also used it strike down laws banning abortion; though in 2022 it reversed course on this, in the Dobbs decision.

The more relevant Constitutional right when a U.S. citizen reenters the United States after international travel is the Fourth Amendment. This limits the power of federal and state law enforcement authorities to make arrests, search people and their property, and seize objects and contraband. They must, in situations where the person has a legitimate expectation of privacy, have a reasonable basis to conduct a search or must obtain a warrant after showing probable cause to conduct a search.

But even the Fourth Amendment won't necessarily cover you or any U.S. citizen when returning from a trip abroad. That's because entry to the United States is viewed as a unique set of circumstances, given its importance for national safety and security. The U.S. Supreme Court discussed this in a case called United States v. Ramsey, 431 U.S. 606 (1977), which basically said that all searches taking place at a U.S. border are reasonable and that the law doesn't give you any expectation of privacy there.

So Do U.S. Citizens Really Have to Hand Over Digital Devices?

A 2018 directive from CBP asserted that basic searches of electronic devices are part of the agency's "longstanding practice and are essential to enforcing the law at the U.S. border and to protecting border security." It also stated that CBP will "protect the rights of individuals against unreasonable search and seizure and ensure privacy protections." A basic search, according to this directive, is one in which no external equipment is hooked up to the device so as to review, copy, and or analyze its contents.

Federal courts in earlier years have said that: "Routine searches of the persons and effects of entrants [into the United States] are not subject to any requirement of reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or warrant." (United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531, 538 (1985).)

As such, the CBP directive told its officers that they may examine information that resides on the device itself, and that's reachable through its operating system or other software, tools, or applications, but not through the cloud. That's why officers were directed to either ask that the traveler put the device into airplane mode or in some cases, do so themselves.

Significantly, the court in the Ninth Circuit regards situations concerning electronic devices as involving new legal territory. It held in a case called United States v. Cotterman that border agents need to at least have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before they search a laptop.

The court's reasoning pointed to the fact that a laptop's contents are highly personal and that such devices "are simultaneously offices and personal diaries. They contain the most intimate details of our lives: financial records, confidential business documents, medical records and private emails. This type of material implicates the Fourth Amendment's specific guarantee of the people's right to be secure in their 'papers.'"

More recently, however, after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought suit on behalf of a mix of U.S. citizen and permanent resident travelers whose smartphones and laptops were searched without individualized suspicion at U.S. ports of entry, a federal appeals court in Boston ruled in 2021 that this did not violate the Constitution. The court cited a longstanding border search exception the warrant requirement, and made the practical assertion that "given the volume of travelers passing through our nation's borders, warrantless electronic device searches are essential to the border search exception's purpose of ensuring
that the executive branch can adequately protect the border."

The court's holding is apparently nationwide in scope, but further appeals or decisions in other circuits are still possible. Thus the matter should not yet be considered entirely settled.

Protective Steps U.S. Citizens Can Take

Regardless of the latest state of the law, it's worth turning to practical steps you can take when traveling; especially in light of a Washington Post report that information collected from travelers is being insecurely stored in a database that's accessible by thousands of CBP employees without a warrant; and held there for 15 years after its collection.

Applying for one of the programs that offers speedy U.S. entry, such as Global Entry or NEXUS, could help avoid difficult encounters with CBP. Unfortunately, applying for one of these programs is anything but speedy (as of mid-2022), owing to pandemic-related delays and the need to schedule an interview before being approved.

Also look into whatever technological steps are appropriate to protect your sensitive information. Experts recommend, for example, powering down your device or at least putting it in airplane mode before passing through the CBP inspection point, deleting sensitive files and photos before you travel or putting them in a separate password-protected file, or at the most extreme, buying a separate device just for international travel.

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