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No Digital Surveillance of Iranians at the U.S. Border—Or Within the U.S.

Update 1/10/20: New reporting alleges that officers didn't just search phones, they also acquired social media passwords. Collecting social media passwords would violate existing Department of Homeland Security policy, which requires officers to “respect individuals’ privacy settings” and “access only information that is publicly available." And, if officers used social media passwords to search social media content on a person’s devices, such an action would violate CBP’s policy that prohibits searching cloud content.

Only days into heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, media outlets have published disturbing reports of increased scrutiny of people of Iranian descent at U.S. borders, including in at least one case involving a traveler’s phone. EFF strongly opposes any targeting of people for digital surveillance based on their race, religion, or nationality, at our border and in our interior. And we remind all members of the public to practice surveillance self-defense.

Disturbing Reports from the Border

On January 5, media outlets reported that more than 60 people of Iranian descent, including U.S. citizens, were held at the border between Canada and Washington state for many hours and questioned about their perceived connections to Iran. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) denied that it detained or refused entry to Iranians based on their national origin, a claim contested by accounts from travelers. CBP also denied allegations that there was an agency directive to detain people of Iranian descent. 

At least one U.S. citizen reported that a CBP officer coerced him into providing the passcode to his smartphone, and that officers then took away his phone for two hoursat which point officers presumably searched his phone. EFF has long argued, including in Alasaad v. McAleenan, that travelers have significant privacy interests in their digital data and that the U.S. Constitution protects such interests at the border. We’ve also argued that these rights are not suspended if an international traveler happens to be of a particular race, religion, or nationality. Indeed, digital surveillance at the border, if predicated on these factors, is both unconstitutional and a moral outrage.

Concerns About the Interior

There is also a growing fear that, in light of recent events, people of Iranian descent within the United States may be subjected to digital surveillance from police departments. Already, both the New York City Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department have announced that they will be boosting security in their respective cities.

There is good reason to be wary that this may lead to an increase of police surveillance of Iranian communities. In 2012, for example, both the NYPD and the Newark Police Department settled legal claims brought by advocacy groups opposing police surveillance and infiltration of Muslims in their cities, including the surveillance of shops, restaurants, mosques, and schools. At the time of the settlement, the NYPD admitted that blanket surveillance of communities based on religious or nationality had produced no useful intelligence. Likewise, in the lead-up to the Iraq war, the FBI targeted Iraqi Americans for surveillance.

Surveillance Self-Defense

Now, more than ever, it’s important to know your rights and understand what precautions you can take to protect yourself from digital surveillance by our government. EFF’s guides for Surveillance Self-Defense offer advice on how to protect your digital privacy in a number of situations, including online communications and at protests. If you plan to travel internationally, EFF has a guide on protecting your digital data at the border, as well as a printable pocket guide on border searches. 

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