In recent months, travelers at airports all across the United States are being asked with increasing frequency to unlock their phones. Sidd Bikkannavar, a scientist who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is a U.S.-born citizen. He has not traveled to any of the countries listed in President Donald Trump’s travel ban and he works for a U.S. federal agency.
He was still detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. CBP officers interrogated Bikkannavar and tried to convince him that they had the authority to search his phone. Even though Bikkannavar’s phone was property of NASA, he was not allowed to leave until he gave it up.
Bikkannavar’s case is becoming more common. Travelers are being stopped, interrogated and pressured into surrendering their electronic devices, with the threat of detainment or seizure looming if they do not comply.
Ordinarily, the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. However, there is an exception for border searches, which allows “government agents to search travelers’ luggage, vehicles or persons without a warrant and almost always without any individualized suspicion of wrongdoing.” Additional provisions were made under the Obama administration to further the investigative powers of government agencies, including that electronic devices “are subject to search by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to ensure the enforcement at the border of immigration, customs, and other federal laws.”
Therefore, the government has the right to search personal phones. However, the government cannot legally force anyone to give access, which is why agencies have utilized detainment and seizure to pressure people into compliance.
Critics argue that this is an encroachment on people’s privacy. Some, like Bikkannavar, may have work-related material on their devices that they are not allowed to show to anyone. Others, like journalists and reporters, may need to protect their sources. Many of those who are detained are not even told why they were selected, so why should they give information to an entity that refuses to give them information?
The counterargument is that these seizures are necessary for national security. Gaining access to the personal information of travelers coming into the United States may help find potential terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, in addition to other criminals like pedophiles or drug lords.
In both the past and the present, the government has shown that it will go to extreme lengths to suppress criminal elements, even if it has to ignore the rights of its citizens in the process.
Recently, the Council on Islamic-American Relations filed complaints against the CBP for demanding that Muslim-American citizens disclose all of their social media information when they return from overseas. With Trump’s animosity toward immigrants—indicated by his recent executive order consisting of a travel ban for people from predominately Muslim countries and refugees, his stated desire to build a wall along the southern border and his derogatory comments about Muslim groups and women—the vilification of foreign travelers in the United States may only increase.
The national fear created by events like 9/11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks led to the creation and passing of the expedited USA PATRIOT Act, which greatly expanded the powers of various government agencies. However, the act brought on indefinite detentions of immigrants and permission given to police to search someone’s home or business without consent or knowledge. It also brought on the increased ability of agencies like the National Security Agency to collect all types of data about U.S. citizens and search said data without a court order. Some of these provisions were eventually ruled unconstitutional.
A parallel could be drawn between these events and the more recent attacks conducted by Islamic State sympathizers in the United States. Like back then, in response to the threat of another terrorist group, the U.S. government is increasing its reach under the stated purpose of national security.
The government might argue that these new measures are for the good of the public and that this is a necessary evil to ensure the nation’s continued safety from a tragedy akin to 9/11.
While this is a reasonable argument, a line must be drawn somewhere between the safety of the country and the obvious intrusion on the rights of people coming into the country. Selective interrogation and detainment of foreign travelers is not the way to go. People have a basic right to privacy and these agencies cannot intrude on it. There must be some kind of balance struck between both national security and human rights.