Border patrol

Why Does Border Patrol Need the Ability To Delete Messages?

A lawsuit attempts to find out how federal agents are implementing Wickr, a communications service that has an auto-erase function.


The same government that wants to demand access to all our secure phone and online communications nevertheless wants to destroy its own to keep it out of the public's hands? Say it isn't so!

Yes, probably few are surprised, but it's worth taking note whenever our own grabby government uses privacy technology to keep secrets. On Sunday, NBC News reported about Customs and Border Patrol's (CBP) use of an Amazon-owned app called Wickr, a conferencing, file-sharing, and messaging service that can be customized to automatically delete messages.

The purchase and use of the app by CBP has prompted concerns by the National Archives and Records Administration that the agency could be using the app to delete messages or communications that are supposed to be stored under the Federal Records Act. The chief records officer of the National Archives sent the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) a letter last fall expressing his concerns and asking for documentation about policies for proper use. CBP hasn't fully responded to his questions. Now the agency is being sued by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) because it hasn't responded to Freedom of Information Act requests for documentation about how Wickr has been implemented.

DHS famously wants to access as much of our data as possible with as few privacy protections as it can get away with. CBP historically has demanded access to electronic devices of people attempting to cross the border into the country legally, without any warrants or even suspicion of criminal activity. Only recently have federal judges ruled that border agents need to be able to articulate a reasonable suspicion before demanding to access the private contents of travelers' phones, tablets, or laptops. CBP searched thousands of these devices every year and even copied their contents, often without ever finding any evidence of wrongdoing.

Of course, the CBP's bosses at DHS are notably against the public having unrestricted access to tools like end-to-end encryption. Encryption makes it all the much harder for the government to access our private data without us knowing and without our permission. Federal law enforcement leaders like FBI Director Christopher Wray want to force online communication platforms to give government bypasses or back doors around the same kinds of tools that help CBP staff keep communications secret. Not only would this compromise Americans' privacy protections against secret domestic surveillance, but it would also potentially render all our records vulnerable to criminal hackers and foreign governments.

There is also the massive accountability issue here. The CBP has authorization to use force against not just foreign travelers at the border but also against Americans within 100 miles of border crossings, and yes, some of them have gotten overly violent with citizens, just like members of other law enforcement agencies. As a federal government agency, the CBP is supposed to operate with transparency about its behavior and the behavior of its agents.

The communications between officers can help establish intent to engage in misconduct or violent behavior. The ability of a government agent to conceal or delete these messages impacts the ability to investigate and, when necessary, prosecute bad behavior. And when the federal government fails to police misconduct on its own, the ability to delete these messages also makes it harder for outside media outlets or accountability organizations like CREW to monitor what's going on.

"Privacy for me, but not for thee," is a terrible position for anybody to take, but it's downright dangerous coming from a law enforcement agency full of armed officers.