“While the reasonable-suspicion standard for a border search is pretty low, it would at least preclude a blanket rule that every traveler disclose their passwords to online material and services,” said Al Gidari, the director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.
But because rules around border searches are murky, customs agents have asked for—or even demanded—social-media information and passwords in the past.
Earlier this month, the Council for American-Islamic Relations filed complaints with DHS, the Justice Department, and Customs and Border Protection, alleging that border agents had asked several Muslim-American travelers to identify their social-media accounts and turn over passwords to their mobile devices. Last month, Ali Hamedani, an Iranian-born British citizen and a reporter for the BBC, was asked to hand over his phone and password after he arrived at Chicago O’Hare airport.
With an unlocked device in hand, a border agent could scroll through the contents of signed-in social-media apps like Facebook and Twitter, reading private posts and messages. But because social-media sites’ data is hosted at data centers around the world, not on the device being carried through the border, rifling through that information may not be covered by the border-search exemption.
“Ordinarily there are no Fourth Amendment rights at the border, but a search of an online account isn’t occurring at the border: It's occurring wherever the server is located,” said Orin Kerr, the director of the Cybersecurity Law Initiative at George Washington University. “It's not clear if that counts.”
April Doss, a former top National Security Agency lawyer, told ZDNet’s Zack Whittaker that the proposal would almost certainly be unlawful.
In an interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin published Thursday, Kelly elaborated on his ideas for sifting through visitors’ digital exhaust:
Kelly said the administration is considering requiring residents of the seven countries to provide lists of the websites they’ve visited and their passwords, to enable officials “to get on those websites to see what they're looking at.”
Kelly said some of the other “ballpark things” that his department is considering include looking at applicants’ social media use “to see what they tweet,” as well as financial information and cellphone contacts so that officials can check the numbers against databases kept by the U.S. and the European Union.
Other countries have experimented with invasive digital searches at the border. A Canadian man named Alain Philippon was arrested at the Halifax airport last year when he refused to turn over the password to his cellphone. He claimed he shouldn’t have been forced to give up his password, but a day before his scheduled trial this summer, he pled guilty to obstructing a customs agent and paid a $500 fine. The case wasn’t heard, and the Canadian law remains unclear.