When a federal judge ruled last week that government officials cannot search travelers’ electronics, including their phones, at U.S. border entries without reasonable suspicion, the decision begged the question: What other restrictions do government agents face when questioning or inspecting travelers?
In many cases, the answer depends on whether a traveler is interacting with an agent with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), or an airline employee. Each entity has varying levels of power over the traveling public. There are, however, several protections officially on the books that every traveler should know about.
Data on your devices
Last week’s decision in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts arms passengers with a new line of defense when it comes to privacy protections. Judge Denise J. Casper’s ruling curtails the ability of CBP officers to access data on travelers’ phones, laptops, and other electronic devices unless they have reasonable suspicion of specific criminal activity.
This was a win for civil liberties and privacy advocates who have long argued the practice of tapping into devices of private citizens at borders, often exposing intimate or confidential information, has gone too far.
The number of electronic searches at borders has increased significantly in recent years, according to CBP’s self-reporting. The agency conducted about 30,200 electronic searches on travelers entering or exiting the United States in 2017, up significantly from the 19,051 searches the year prior.
Travelers can now reference this ruling if they feel they have been unreasonably searched or targeted.
Opting out of face scans
Biometrics are increasingly becoming a part of the air traveling life. Facial recognition technology is being installed at airports across the country and is used for identity verification when boarding flights and clearing security checkpoints.
For some travelers, this is a welcome way to expedite the travel experience. For others, it raises privacy concerns regarding the fact that the government can track the whereabouts of individual citizens.
Airlines, TSA, and CBP are working in tandem to roll out this technology. All three entities state that passengers can opt out of a facial scan and proceed with standard identification measures. For passengers boarding an international flight where facial recognition is present, they can instead choose to present a paper or mobile boarding pass along with their passport.
Be screened in private or out in the open
TSA agents are required to ensure that no airline passenger has an illegal weapon, contraband, or explosive. Sometimes that means making physical contact with a passenger to make sure they aren’t carrying any prohibited items. If a pat-down scenario arises, passengers have the right to request their screening occur in a private room. But passengers also have a right to refuse a private pat down if a TSA agent offers it. Either situation can be uncomfortable for travelers, but it’s important to know one’s options.
Nursing rooms and changing tables
Breastfeeding mothers who travel face many logistical hurdles, and the U.S. government has decided that having a place to nurse or pump in between flights shouldn’t be one of them. The Friendly Airports for Mothers (FAM) Act was incorporated into the Federal Aviation Administration’s Reauthorization Act last year and signed into law, requiring all large and medium-size airports to provide, clean, accessible, private rooms in every terminal for nursing mothers. It also requires those same airports to install baby changing tables in both men’s and women’s restrooms.
Milk, formula, and juice
The TSA has an important exemption to its hard-and-fast 3-1-1 liquids rule for those transporting breast milk, formula, or juice for infants and toddlers. While the average traveler must pack liquids in containers smaller than 3.4 ounces—and then shove those bottles in a single quart-sized clear, plastic, zip-top bag—liquids deemed “child nourishment” are exempted from those limitations, along with medications. Breast milk can be brought through security with or without the child present. Ice packs and coolers are also allowed as a means of transporting these items.
Exemptions for children and older adults
The TSA loosened the screening procedures for children under 12 and adults over 75 several years ago in an attempt to focus on higher-risk age categories. “What it came down to is that if you look at everybody, then you look at nobody,” said Jeffrey Price, an airport and aviation security expert from Metropolitan State University of Denver.
The guidelines are somewhat vague but generally permit older adults and young children to keep shoes and light jackets on when passing through the body scanners.
“Are there going to be gaps in the system because of that?” Price said. “Yes. But it comes down to what is an acceptable level of risk for aviation.”
Religious and cultural exceptions
TSA pat downs and screenings are more than simply a dreaded nuisance; they can conflict directly with religious and cultural beliefs and sensitivities. For people whose beliefs forbid certain articles of clothing or artifacts to be touched by nonpractitioners, the TSA will try to do what it can to accommodate those parameters.
Experts advise travelers in need of these exemptions to tell agents their concerns upon arrival at security so they can work toward an amicable solution. “Those situations can be difficult for travelers and difficult for TSA,” Price said. “Most of the time they will be helpful, but ultimately, the TSA has to be sure you don’t have a weapon or explosive device.”