In October 2016, journalist Ed Ou was traveling from Canada to North Dakota
to cover the protests at Standing Rock.
But as he passed through security, a border official stopped him.
- The person then asked me, "Well, we just need to search your phone now."
I told him, "I'm not allowed to let you see my phones,
because in my phones there's contacts, there's sources."
And he said, "Well, you need to make a choice,
because if you want to come into this country,
we need to search your phones."
I kept on telling them, "Look, you cannot search my phones,
I'm not going to give you my passwords, because if I do,
I will jeopardize the safety and security of my sources."
They took them anyway.
Over the past three years,
Customs and Border Patrol data shows that
the agency increased the number of electronic device searches at the border
from about 8,500 in 2015 to more than 30,000 in 2017.
- We've seen that that number is rising every year, which is very troubling.
The government claims the authority to search anyone's electronic devices—
smartphones, laptops—any time they enter the U.S. border,
without any level of suspicion at all.
This is not only a grave threat to privacy rights,
it has major implications for freedom of speech and human rights worldwide.
The practice of warrantless searches or confiscations of phones and computers
has a chilling effect on journalism.
Many reporters worry these invasive tactics will
expose confidential sources or sensitive information.
Several journalists told CPJ the searches have forced them to think twice
about covering sensitive topics and, in some cases, to put travel plans on hold.
- It's somewhat changed my thinking.
International travel, international reporting, it's something that I think twice now.
Journalist Isma'il Kushkush covered national security, extremism, and refugee issues in East Africa for years.
Since 2016, he's had his devices searched on three separate occasions.
- My electronic devices were taken. My laptop, two cell phones, and my notebook.
And I was questioned about what I was reporting on,
I was asked to open my devices
and provide my social media addresses, my email address.
And although Kushkush is an American-born U.S. citizen,
he believes his ethnic background and his topics of reporting
may both be factors in the frequent searches he faced.
- Clearly, I was singled out.
- It was clear that there was a pattern,
that I was specifically being, you know,
targeted and questioned about my whereabouts.
According to the ACLU, Muslims and individuals of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent
are more likely to face increased scrutiny at the border.
- This all goes toward the need for greater transparency,
more detail from CBP and ICE on how exactly they're wielding this powerful authority and why.
Meanwhile, journalists like Ou are resorting to using digital security practices
that were once reserved for working in authoritarian countries,
minimizing the number of devices and the amount of sensitive data they carry.
- I made a note to myself never to have anything personal on me.
Never have a journal, never have anything that could be searched, for exactly this reason.
And although authorities claim they have the power to conduct these searches at the border,
their legal footing is still being debated in the courts.
Within the U.S., a warrant is required to search an electronic device.
- The Supreme Court said that searching someone's cell phone
is not the same as searching their pockets for a weapon, for example.
- You need a warrant to conduct a cell phone search because the data on there
is quantitatively and qualitatively different than anything else a person might be carrying.
And it would be a huge invasion of privacy
for a police officer to be able to access all of that information
simply because they had arrested somebody.
If other countries look to what the United States government does
and also require unlimited ability to access digital data when people travel,
that's going to affect human rights worldwide.
What we don't want to see is a world in which the conditions of travel
require turning over your entire digital history to a government agent.
Whether it's the United States government or another government.
For Ou, the border searches led to the realization that he can't leave his concerns about digital security behind him,
simply because he's on his way into the United States.
- It was really shocking, actually.
- I'm pretty used to things like this because I've worked in the Middle East for a long time.
But here I am in pre-clearance going to the U.S., and
I then felt like there was nowhere safe in the world anymore.