Traveling to and from the United States has become an increasingly confusing and anxiety-inducing prospect for many Americans, immigrants, and tourists since President Donald Trump was inaugurated in January. Trump has issued multiple executive orders related to immigration and travel, and keeping up with them can be a daunting task.
One question that is often raised is whether or not agents of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) or U.S. Border Patrol can legally seize electronic devices and demand PINs so that they can access individual’s personal information.
The answer is simultaneously tricky and simple, in that it’s “yes” and “no.”
— The Hill (@thehill) March 5, 2017
As a recent article from Engadget points out, the TSA cannot seize your phone and demand your PIN number during routine searches or screenings.
The TSA has gone to lengths to make this is clear after recently being flooding with questions about the issue.
“TSA does not and will not confiscate laptops or other electronic devices at our checkpoints,” a post on the TSA’s official blog reads.
“Our officers are solely focused on the safety of the traveling public and are looking for explosives and other prohibited items. Should one of our officers find something suspicious, we will immediately contact local law enforcement and potentially the local bomb squad. We will not ask for any password, access to any files or take the laptop from you for longer than it takes to determine if it contains a threat.”
The blog continues to explain that if you are asked to hand over your electronic device or provide your PIN, you have to right to ask to speak to a TSA manager.
“Should anyone at a TSA checkpoint attempt to confiscate your laptop or gain your passwords or other information, please ask to see a supervisor or screening manager immediately,” the post reads.
— Engadget (@engadget) March 6, 2017
Dealing wit the Border Patrol, however, is a completely different situation. Their agents have much more legal leeway when it comes to searches, seizures and other aspects of Constitutional law.
“That’s because [Border Patrol] exists in a gray area not exactly protected by the Fourth and Fifth amendments, which ostensibly protect us from unreasonable searches and self-incrimination,” Engadget explains. “They’ve been doing it for years.”
Engadget notes that you can take some precautions to avoid Border Patrol snooping too deeply into your personal life, such as closing apps before getting to the border and encrypting as much information as possible. But, ultimately, if Border Patrol asks for your device and PIN, you basically have to give it to them.
“[I]f they ask and you refuse to give them your password or pretend you don’t know it, they will make life very difficult for you,” Engadget says. “They’ll detain and interrogate you, handcuff you while demanding your password, confiscate your devices for days (or longer) and possibly refuse you entry into the US. Increasingly, border enforcement is copying the contents of devices and keeping them, though CBP isn’t supposed to keep that data longer than a week.”
Keep in mind, unlike most other government and law-enforcement agencies, the Border Patrol does not need a warrant or even suspicion to search your personal belongings.
In sum, when dealing with TSA agents your privacy should be safe when it comes to your electronic devices. They can of course still search your bags and other carry-on items. With the Border Patrol, however, you’re more or less at their mercy in regards to whether or not they want to search your electronic devices.
[Featured Image by Scott Olson/Getty Images]