Can TSA search your phone? Know your digital rights at the airport

Ben Osborne 25 Jul 2023

TSA can make you take off your shoes, but you might be surprised at the answer to the question: Can TSA search my phone?

Everybody knows that TSA will make you pour out your water bottle and take off your shoes, but are they allowed to search your phone? Well, like a lot of security-related things, there’s not exactly a clean “yes or no” answer. 

 Can TSA search your phone? 

The TSA largely looks for physical evidence that a passenger could be a threat, so they’ll generally have no reason to search through the data on your phone. After all, they’re the Transportation Security Agency, not a detective agency. Even if they did have reason to want to access your phone, they’d need a warrant. 

 However, if they have reason to suspect that the physical device could be potentially dangerous (like if the internals look suspicious when it goes through the baggage scanner), they’ll usually want to inspect it to ensure that it’s untampered with. In situations like this, it’s within their rights to ask you to power on your device and maybe even open a few apps just to show that it’s fully operational.  

On the other hand, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has the authority to freely search any and all electronic devices at the border. They’re a totally different body than the TSA, so keep this in mind if you’re traveling internationally. 

Can Border Control search your phone? 

Regardless of if you’re a citizen, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has the ability to search the contents of your phone without a warrant. This includes your texts, photos, browsing history, social media posts, and even financial information. 

Luckily, CBP isn’t allowed to deny you entrance into the country for refusing to unlock your phone if you’re a US citizen. However, they can still confiscate your device for as long as they want, and download anything they want, and save it to their databases. This practice isn’t limited to airports either, these powers extend to any border crossing too. 

Are there any examples of the TSA searching the contents of phones? 

Not officially. Back when the TSA overhauled their screening procedures in 2017, a Freedom of Information Act was filed against the Department of Homeland Security aiming to determine whether they’d been searching the data on passenger's’ electronic devices. The reports came back without any real conclusive information ever being released to the public and the suit was eventually dropped the following year after the TSA provided a statement saying that searching electronic devices breaks procedure. 

There have been a few reports over the years of people claiming to have had their devices searched, but they mostly consist of scattered social media posts and other unverifiable claims.   

What should you do if the TSA tries to search the contents of your phone? 

There are a few things you should be certain to do if a TSA agent asks to access the data on your device: 

Ask for clarification 

Before raising any concerns or denying their request, make sure you’re absolutely certain what the TSA agent is asking of you. Not cooperating with a TSA agent can result in denial of boarding or potential legal consequences, so politely asking for clarification is an important first step. 

Inform the agent of your rights 

If the agent continues demanding to search your phone, you could mention the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. This might sound a bit extreme, but this is the same regulation that requires police officers to get a warrant before that can conduct a search. 

Report any issues 

If you believe your rights have been violated during the screening process, you can file a complaint with the TSA. You can ask to speak to a supervisor while at the airport, or they also have a website and hotline where you can report any concerns or issues. 

Remember that specific legal requirements and regulations may change, so it's always a good idea to stay informed about current laws and guidelines regarding electronic device searches by the TSA or other relevant authorities. 

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