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US Customs can search phones, but won't be allowed to search cloud data

(Image credit: Image Credit: Joergelman / Pixabay)

According to the United States Department of Homeland Security, border officials are permitted to search the devices of anyone entering the country with or without probably cause though there is a limit to type of content they can view. 

Senator Ron Wyden sent a letter to Homeland Security in February seeking clarification regarding why US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been conducting more searches than ever before.  Kevin McALeenan, the acting commissioner of CBP, responded to the letter on June 20th, revealing that while devices such as smartphones (opens in new tab) and laptops can be searched, files stored in the cloud are inaccessible to customs and border officials. 

McAleenan shed further light on the reasoning behind the increased searches of travellers, saying: 

“CBP's authority to conduct border searches extends to all merchandise entering or departing the United States, including information that is physically resident on an electronic device transported by an international traveler.  Therefore, border searches conducted by CBP do no extend to information that is located solely on remote servers.” 

In 2015, the CBP searched 5,000 devices throughout the course of the whole year while the same number of devices was searched by border and customs officials in this February alone. 

Although McAleenan's response (opens in new tab) has clarified a few things, its wording is rather vague and officials could still be searching the social media and email accounts of travellers (opens in new tab) if they are already accessible via their devices. 

Travellers can refuse to provide the passwords (opens in new tab) to their devices and while US citizens will be able to enter the country, those travelling internationally may be denied for doing so. 

Image Credit: Joergelman / Pixabay

Anthony Spadafora
Anthony Spadafora

After getting his start at ITProPortal and then working with the TechRadar Pro team for the last several years, Anthony is now the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches to how to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. When not writing, you can find him tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.