What to Know
- The Office of Inspector General says U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers are searching electronic devices more and more.
- Cassie Cardelle said CBP officers asked her to turn over her cellphone and password on a trip home to Boston.
- Cardelle said officers kept her phone for 45 minutes and she's worried about her personal photos and passwords.
Your cellphone has your photos, contacts, and some of your most personal information, but next time you go through airport customs, you may have to turn it over.
The Office of Inspector General says U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers are searching electronic devices more often and agents aren't always following proper protocols. NBC10 Boston spoke with a Boston native who feels her search at Logan Airport crossed the line.
Cassie Cardelle is an Instagram model and travel blogger who says she's staying grounded for the foreseeable future.
"I want to be able to travel again, but I'm kind of scared," said Cardelle.
In September, Cardelle flew from Spain to Boston, and as required, was screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection or CBP. Cardelle scanned her passport, declared the olives she bought as a gift and handed over her bags for inspection.
"He was searching my bags," explained Cardelle. "Then he was like, 'what do you do for work? What do you do in LA? What are you doing in Boston?''
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"They really interrogated me," Cardelle added. "Then he picked up a bikini thing and he was like, you wear this? You wore this there?"
Cardelle said the male agent wasn't interested in her olives but asked her to turn over her cellphone and password.
"I said that's fine and asked if I could go with him," explained Cardelle. "He said, 'no you are going to have to wait here. I have all my passwords saved in my notes. I have personal photos, and then after the fact I was like, do they just want to see my photos?"
Cardelle says she keeps her modeling photos on her phone and had some pictures intended only for her boyfriend on the device.
"I was nervous and I was uncomfortable," said Cardelle. "I was angry."
Cardelle is one of the tens of thousands of travelers who have had their phones searched by customs agents in recent years. The agency's own statistics show a 60 percent increase in searches in 2017 over the previous year. According to CBP, all travelers arriving in the United States are subject to inspection, which can include computers, disks, drives, tapes, and mobile phones. The agency says their agents have the right to ask you for your phone's password and they can make a copy of its content.
"They can question me all they want, but to be treated like that was not OK with me," said Cardelle.
Stephanie Malin with CBP told NBC10 Boston she can't discuss how Cardelle's inspection was carried out but says any traveler whose device is searched would be provided with an informational sheet.
Cardelle denies receiving it.
A new audit from the Office of Inspector General finds that some customs searches conducted between 2016 and 2017 did not always follow proper protocol and the data collected from passengers was not always properly secured.
"The trend is increasing and that's why it's all the more important now that the courts issue declarations, saying that this kind of policy needs to stop," said Jessie Rossman with the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Both the ACLU of Massachusetts and Electronic Frontier Foundation have filed a federal lawsuit, seeking to prevent agents from flipping through your phone, and other electronic devices without getting a warrant first.
"What our lawsuit right now in the Federal District of Massachusetts is saying is that that policy violates the 1st Amendment and the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and should be stopped," said Rossman.
Cardelle says customs agents held her phone for 45 minutes. She's considering filing a formal complaint but says the damage has already been done.
"I'm kind of scared that my photos and information are floating around somewhere," said Cardelle.
Before traveling out of the country, legal experts advise you to clear your phone of personal information, use encryption services or simply leave your phone at home altogether.
In many countries, you can buy a cheap phone to use during your visit. If asked, you can decline to hand over your phone, but border agents can detain you or take the phone away. You can request an attorney at the scene if you feel you need legal help.