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Ever since the so-called Patriot Act was signed into law by then US President George W. Bush,  American hysteria in post 911 era has led to a continued erosion of our civil liberties along a growing list of government intrusions to our personal privacy.    This is according to a report by Forbes Magazine published on April 28, 2017.

Your cell phone  – which many of us use access the most sensitive and personal details of our lives in digital form –  is subject to examination and seizure by U.S. customs officials each and every time you enter the United States.

Your social networks, business contacts, photos, legal documents, financial history, medical records, games, and apps can be stored or accessed through your cell phone.  But what happens if you, an innocent person, are asked by U.S. Customs to unlock your smartphone (a.k.a. your life) so they can “examine” what was once protected by the 4th amendment?

Aside from hoping that those who drafted and passed this legislation get a taste of their own medicine one day, there isn’t much you can do about it.  You can, however, prepare your phone from invasive inspection by signing out from all your apps before entering U.S. Customs.

Your RightsU.S. Customs officers are not supposed to ask you for the passwords to any of your apps, and you are under no obligation to provide them this information.  However, if your apps are open and running when you hand over your phone, they can look at anything they want.

Here are a few stories, of concern discussed in this Forbes’ report:

Story of a Young Canadian

This victim wants to be called “André” instead of his real name for the fear of retaliation.  He said a U.S. Customs agents at the Vancouver airport asked him to unlock his cell phone.

“I didn’t know what to do,”  André told the media. “I was scared, so I gave him the password.”

The U.S. Customs agent then discovered André’s gay dating apps and things started to go down spirally for him.  The Customs agent already made up his mind that André was a male escort looking for business in the U.S.   His entry to the U.S., therefore, was denied.

(Note: A male escort is a man who is paid to have sex with.)

A week later, André returned to the airport with his bank account and a letter from his employer proving that he was a set decorator in Vancouver, BC.   To his disappointment, he was rejected for entry again.  According to André ,  US Customs reasoned that his decision to delete much of the original information from his phone before attempting to cross the border this time made him look suspicious.

But this time US Customs became even more invasive and demanded to take a look at his computer files.   Not only did these border agents tear through his personal photos and subject him to a humiliating interrogation, but he also lost $1,200 because his flight and hotel charges were nonrefundable.

Stories of Three Americans

Not only are tourists subjected constant scrutiny, but Americans are also feeling the pressure.  NBC News reported: “A number of American citizens are being ordered to unlock their cell phones and computers, especially if they are of Muslim descent.”    NBC News reports “American Citizens: U.S. Border Agents Can Search Your Cellphone

  • American #1:
    One 23-year-old New York filmmaker was choked by a CBP agent while another grabbed his phone after he protested having to hand over his cell phone for the second time.  (Note: CBP is U.S.Customs and Boarder Protection)

 

  • American #2:
    Naturalized U.S. citizen born in Egypt was handcuffed and held for four hours before he agreed to hand over his cell phone.

 

  • American #3:
    A young NASA scientist returning to the U.S. from vacation in Chile tells of similar problems.  Sidd Bikkannavar, a natural born American of East Indian descent, was threatened with detention unless he turned over his NASA-issued cell phone and password. This is in spite of the fact that
    NASA employees are sworn to protect classified information. Bikkannavar argued for some time before finally giving in,  and providing U.S. Customs officers with the password to NASA’s phone.

How and When Cell Phone Inspections and Seizure Began

Cell Phone Inspections and Seizure policies were first instituted under the post 911 President George W. Bush administration.   However, this policy was largely limited to certain individuals until the Obama administration gave even more latitude to US Customs officials to apply this policy to anyone.

Cell Phone Seizure Can Happen to You

According to an NBC’s report, cell phone seizures at airports and borders have increased from 8,503 in  2015 to more than 19,000 in 2016.

Some Traveling Tips Recommended by Experts

  1. Travel with only the information you need: make sure your smartphone or computer contains no sensitive or private information. You also can encrypt your private data and send it to yourself in advance.
  2. Switch off your device, and sign out from private apps before going through security.
  3. Store sensitive data and photos in the cloud.
  4. Know your rights.
  5. Consider buying travel insurance: so if you can not catch your flight, or check into your hotel on time, you may not recoup your money if they have a no refund policy.  The proper travel insurance can help prevent this.