Thousands of US government officials have unrestricted access to as many as 10,000 devices seized by travelers traveling across the country.
Electronic devices such as cell phones, iPads and laptops stolen from airports, seaports and border crossings are mined for data.
The Customs and Border Protection chief told congressional staff that the massive database can be accessed without warrant by 2,700 CBP officers.
At a briefing, which took place over the summer, officials also said the data will be kept for 15 years.
It has raised the alarm in Congress about what the government is using the information or, with many of the devices taken from people not suspected of criminal activity.
Details of the database were revealed Thursday in a letter from Senator Ron Wyden to CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus.
He criticized the agency for “randomly searches Americans’ private data” and called for stricter privacy protections.
CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus received a letter criticizing the department after it was revealed that thousands of officers have access to the database
At a briefing held over the summer, officials said the massive database is accessible to 2,700 CBP officers without a warrant.
Electronic devices such as mobile phones, iPads and laptops mined by airports, seaports and border crossings for data by the Dutch DPA
Senator Paul and Wyden introduced a bill last year requiring border officials to get a warrant before they could search a device.
Currently, the CBP has the authority to perform a ‘basic search’, which includes looking and scrolling through the device.
Anyone who refuses to unlock their phone for the process can take it up to five days.
The controversial practice has always been championed by the Dutch DPA, although many feel that inspecting the phones goes a step too far.
In their defense of the decision to continue to inspect the electronic devices, the DPA sees it as a low-impact way to pursue potential security risks.
The CBP says it can determine a person’s “intentions on entry” into the US even if the devices do not indicate relevant information.
Some lawmakers and privacy advocates warn that without public oversight, the searchable database could violate the US’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Federal researchers are increasingly using technology that many Americans don’t understand or agree to.
Currently, the CBP has the authority to conduct a ‘basic investigation’, which includes looking and scrolling through the device with which Sen Wyden, pictured, disagrees
Currently, the CBP has the authority to perform a ‘basic search’, which includes looking and scrolling through the devices
FBI agents and immigration and customs enforcement officials have previously performed facial recognition in searches of millions of U.S. driver’s license photos.
They would have tapped into private databases of financial and utility data to find out where they live and used license plate reader information to access an up-to-date location.
CBP spokesman Lawrence Payne said in a statement to the Washington Post that the agency conducts “border investigations of electronic devices in accordance with legal and regulatory authorities.”
He added that they have imposed rules to ensure that the searches are conducted “judiciously, responsibly and in accordance with public confidence.”
The database, called the Automated Targeting System, they say is used to “further assess CBP information obtained from electronic devices associated with individuals who pose a significant law enforcement, counter-terrorism or national security problem, analyze and assess’.
Officials would not confirm how much U.S. phone records are currently in the database, how many searches have been conducted or how long the practice has been going on.
In 2018, the Dutch DPA issued a directive stating that agents should only keep information related to immigration, customs or ‘other enforcement matters’.
The only exception is if they have a probable reason that could justify storing more content from the phones.
But in the briefing this summer, CBP officials revealed that the default for some searches was to download and save contact lists, call logs and messages.
Senator Paul, pictured, and Wyden introduced a bill last year requiring border officials to get a search warrant before they could search a device
Senator Ron Wyden has criticized the agency for allowing “the arbitrary search of Americans’ private data” and called for stronger privacy protections
Aaron Bowker, CBP’s director of field operations, claimed the data is kept in a small fraction of searches and only when “absolutely necessary.”
He also denied that 2,700 DHS officials have access to the data, saying that this is about 5 percent of their operational staff – meaning 3,000 will have access.
Bowker added that those who have access to the information have been trained, monitored and controlled, defending the level of data access as “appropriate” for the size of the task.
According to the Dutch DPA, no other government agency has direct access to the data, but can request the information on a case-by-case basis.
Data revealed by CBP shows that they conducted approximately 37,000 searches on traveler devices in the year before October 2021.
It’s not clear how many of those devices have had their content uploaded to the database for long-term review.
Law enforcement agencies must demonstrate probable cause and convince a judge to approve a search warrant before accessing devices.
But border authorities are getting an exception that allows them to search the electronics without a warrant or suspicion of crime.
Officials won’t confirm how much US phone records are currently in the database, how many searches have been made or how long the practice has been going on
Data is stored in the Automated Targeting System database after a device is subjected to an ‘advanced search’.
This means that agents have a “reasonable suspicion” that the traveler is breaking the law or posing a threat to national security and that the information can be stored.
Officers are also not required to record the purpose of their searches, but CBP says they are all being tracked down for a later audit.
While CBP officials are required to provide travelers with a printed document stating that searches are “mandatory,” it does not say that the information can be kept for 15 years.
Some travelers don’t get the document until they hand over their phone, meaning they may not fully understand their rights.
It comes after the National Security Agency program, first unveiled by Edward Snowden in 2013, was shut down in 2019.
The NSA once seized millions of Americans’ phone records as part of a surveillance initiative targeting suspected terrorists, but the system revealed the records of millions of people who were not suspected of any crime.