The numbers of those who had their phones searched spiked from 5,000 in 2015 to almost 25,000 in 2016. In February alone, more than 5,000 U.S. citizens were asked for cell phone passwords as they entered their country.
U.S. authorities at airports have been asking U.S. citizens for cell phone passwords in order to search them, according to a recent investigation by NBC News which included one incident in which a couple was asked two separate times for their passwords and the second time the Muslim partner was held in a chokehold when he questioned the officer’s demand.
The most shocking incident involved Akram Shibly and Kelly McCormick who were returning to the U.S. from a trip to Toronto on Jan. 1, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers held them for two hours, took their cellphones and demanded their passwords, NBC reported.
“It just felt like a gross violation of our rights,” said Shibly, a 23-year-old filmmaker born and raised in New York. But he and McCormick complied, and their phones were searched.
However, three days later they were returning from another trip to Canada when they were asked again to hand over their phones and passwords. Shibly refused to comply and told the officer that he had gone through this process once before just recently.
The officer asked a second time but “within seconds,” the outlet said, he was surrounded by several officers.
“One man held his legs, another squeezed his throat from behind. A third reached into his pocket, pulling out his phone. McCormick watched her boyfriend’s face turn red as the officer’s chokehold tightened,” NBC News reported.
The investigation focused on 25 people and found that 23 of them involved Muslims like Shibly, whose parents are from Syria but he was born and raised in the United States.
The practice is nothing new and has been in place since the administration of George W. Bush and continued under the Obama administration, with searches targeting specific individuals.
Data by the Department of Homeland Security, examined by NBC, showed that the numbers of those who had their phones searched spiked from 5,000 in 2015 to almost 25,000 in 2016.
However, the trend is set to break that record this year as the data shows that U.S. border agents searched 5,000 phones in February alone.
The recent surge in the unwarranted searches came after domestic incidents in 2015 and 2016 in which “the watch list system and the FBI failed to stop American citizens from conducting attacks,” two intelligence officers told NBC. But rights and legal activists are sounding an alarm over the invasive searches.
“The shackles are off,” Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, told the outlet. “We see individual officers and perhaps supervisors as well pushing those limits, exceeding their authority and violating people’s rights.”
The investigation points the spotlight to the Islamophobic and anti-immigration policies of President Donald Trump, who promised during his campaign to ban all Muslims from entering the country and has already, in less than two months in office, issued two travel bans that target Muslims-majority countries.