PSA: US Border Patrol can't search your phone's cloud data

The issue of electronic device searches at the border is a hot one, and though US Border Patrol can (and at times will) search your phone, it isn't allowed to search your cloud data accessible through the handset. The Customs and Border Patrol recently acknowledged that it does not have the authority to search cloud-only data found on phones, and that it doesn't search this data as a result. This includes your social media data.

The Customs and Border Patrol recently clarified this matter in a letter response to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who submitted inquiries to the CBP earlier this year. The CBP stated, in part, that:

CBP's authority to conduct border searches extends to all merchandise entering or departing the United States, including information that is physically resident on an electronic device transported by an international traveler. Therefore, border searches conducted by CBP do no extend to information that is located solely on remote servers.

This means that while the US Border Patrol can choose to search the data on your phone if it so chooses, it can't search any data that exists only in a cloud-based account, but not on the phone itself. As one simple example, a Border Patrol official could search documents physically saved on your phone but they couldn't search the documents in your Google Drive account...even if they're accessible through the phone.

The letter goes on to clarify that the 'remote server' data it does not search includes social media accounts, such as your Twitter and Facebook accounts. The letter states that the CBP's Office of Field Operations send out a notice in April to all of its officers reminding them that they cannot search any of this cloud-only data.

The letter also clarifies that a US citizen won't be barred from entering the country if they refuse to surrender a device password — the CBP can, though, confiscate the device for 'further examination' if it decides this is necessary. Such device border searchers are said to affect 'less than one-hundredth of one percent of travelers' who seek entry into the US.