Categories: Security

US Could Force UK Travellers To Hand Over Mobiles & Passwords

Individuals visiting the US for short periods from the UK and other countries could be forced to hand over mobile phones, social media passwords and financial records under border-control measures reportedly being considered by the current presidential administration.

The measures could also include questioning involving visitors’ ideology, senior administration officials told The Wall Street Journal.

Visa-waiver countries affected

Such steps form part of the “extreme vetting” measures promised by US president Donald Trump during his election campaign, which have also taken form in two executive orders attempting to block citizens of several countries from entering the US, as well as other visa restrictions.

The steps are the first that would explicitly include the 38 countries participating in the US’ visa waiver programme, including the UK, France, Australia and Japan.

The programme already requires those countries to provide the US with personal data on passengers and to adhere to strict passport control rules.

The officials’ comments in disclosing the plans focused on ideological and security issues, but such regulations could have significant repercussions for the security of business data held on devices crossing the US border.

Officials said travellers could be required to provide access to their mobile phones so that border-control officers could study stored contacts, call records and other data.

Social media passwords

The objective is to “figure out who you are communicating with”, said a senior Department of Homeland Security official quoted by the paper.

Travellers could also be asked for their social media handles and passwords, in order to view information posted privately.

Homeland security secretary John Kelly told a hearing in February the department was considering such a change. “If they don’t want to give us that information then they don’t come,” he said at the time.

A third change would involve questioning travellers on their ideology, with an “ideological test” currently being developed, according to the Journal’s report.

“If there is any doubt about a person’s intentions coming to the United States, they should have to overcome – really and truly prove to our satisfaction – that they are coming for legitimate reasons,” Gene Hamilton, senior counselor to Kelly, told the newspaper.

Mobile phone searches skyrocket

The number of warrantless searches of mobile phones by border agents spiked last year and has spiked again this year, according to figures obtained from the Department of Homeland Security by NBC News.

From fewer than 5,000 in 2015, the number of such searches grew to nearly 25,000 in 2016 and to 5,000 in the month of February 2017 alone, NBC said.

A bill introduced to the US Senate last week would aim to stem searches without warrants on US citizens, but wouldn’t affect travellers from outside the US.

In February, responding to Kelly’s remarks on the administration’s planned border controls, dozens of human rights and civil liberties groups released a joint statement calling the steps “excessive, unjustified scrutiny”.

“It would discourage people from using online services or taking their devices with them while travelling, and would discourage travel for business, tourism and journalism,” the statement said.

The administration’s two executive orders are inactive legal challenges, but secretary of state Rex Tillerson last month told all US embassies to institute other visa restrictions, including determining specific groups who merited increased scrutiny.

The nature of those groups wasn’t specified, but critics said the move was likely to mean baseless discrimination on ethnic or religious grounds.

Those measures did not, however, directly affect citizens of visa-waiver countries.

Another measure – also implemented by the UK – bans travellers using certain airports from carrying laptops and tablets as cabin baggage – a move some said appeared to target competition from Middle East-based airlines such as Emirates.

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Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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