US Customs Duplicates Phone and Laptop Contents of

  • US Customs preserves data from phones, laptops, and tablets seized from international travelers. 
  • The data is held for up to 15 years and can be viewed by thousands of CBP employees.
  • Some opponents of the practice, like Sen. Ron Wyden, believe it to be a violation of privacy.

Thousands of international travelers’ electronic data is quietly stored in a US Customs and Border Protection database, viewable by thousands of its workers, for up to 15 years, The Washington Post reported.

As one of the country’s largest law enforcement agencies, with a workforce of roughly 60,000 people, CBP is not required to have a warrant to search phones, tablets, or laptops — which opponents say is a constitutional violation of privacy.

“Innocent Americans should not be tricked into unlocking their phones and laptops,” Sen. Ron Wyden said in a Thursday letter to the agency.

It’s widely known to international travelers that CBP can rifle through electronics and belongings, but Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, recently shed light on the agency’s habit of storing data from seized electronics — including contacts, messages, calendars, photos, social media posts, and medical and financial records — in a database more than 2,500 individuals inside the agency have access to.

Information in the database can also be referred to other law enforcement agencies like the FBI or local police departments. “Copies of documents or devices, or portions thereof, which are retained in accordance with this section, may be shared by CBP with Federal, state, local, and foreign law enforcement agencies only to the extent consistent with applicable law and policy,” a 2008 CBP search authority policy reads.

Citing a staff attorney at the privacy rights nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation named Saira Hussain, WaPo reported the database has “few meaningful safeguards” to prevent the information from being mishandled.  

Hackers have previously accessed CBP online data in a cyber attack, compromising travelers’ photos and license plates. 

However, a CBP spokesman, Lawrence “Rusty” Payne, told the Post on Thursday that the agency follows regulations and that searches are “exercised judiciously, responsibly, and consistent with the public trust.”

Several representatives for CBP did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.