February - March, 2018

Increased Warrantless Searching of Travelers’ Phones at Borders in 2017

In 2017, authorities searched the phones of 30, 200 travelers, most when leaving the country, and about 80% of which belonged either to foreigners or legal permanent residents; the number reflects an increase of 19,501 over 2016. In January 2018, Customs and Border Protection issued a new policy relating to phone searches and specified that only the device, and not data in the cloud, may be searched without approval by a supervisor and with “reasonable suspicion” and “articulable facts” to support a more advanced search. The new policy has been criticized by the ACLU, and by Senators Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and Rand Paul (R., Ky.), who have introduced a bill that would require search warrants for the searches. 

Sources:  Alicia A. Caldwell and Laura Meckler, “Border Agents’ Searches of Travelers’ Phones Skyrocketed, Agency Says,” wsj.com, January 5, 2018:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection: 

Smartphone Cameras to See Through Walls

A recent article described how newer camera research is moving away from simply developing more megapixels to a system of fusing camera data with computational processing. The new imaging techniques could work with different wavelengths of light beyond the visible spectrum, and the cameras would have multiple sensors to gather the different data; a final image would subsequently be created using the image data collected by the different sensors. The cameras would, through the different wavelengths utilized, then have an increased ability to ‘see through’ obstructions such as fog, or walls.

Source:  Staff writer, “The next generation of smartphone cameras could see through walls,” pcauthority.com.au, January 24, 2018:

Amazon Echo Spot

The new Amazon Echo Spot, retailing for about $130.00 in January 2018, is Alexa-equipped, has a camera and microphone, and comes with a 2.5-inch touchscreen. The camera function, according to Amazon, only records during video calls and “drop-ins.” However, privacy concerns have been raised about the device being unintentionally activated or being hacked.

A recent article in the dailymailonline noted that a security researcher found the 2015 and 2016 versions of the Amazon Echo could be turned into live-feed microphones. The Amazon Spot also contains a camera, has four microphones embedded, and has advanced noise cancelling technology, so that voices can be heard more clearly from across a room, even when there is background music playing. Another article presented some concerns this way: “The privacy concerns are obvious: an always-listening (for a keyword) microphone in your bedroom, and a camera pointing at your bed.”

Users can turn-off the camera manually or by telling Alexa to turn it off. An Amazon spokesperson was quoted as saying that Amazon takes the customer’s privacy seriously and has taken steps to make sure the device is secure: “These include hardware control via the mic/camera off button, disallowing third party application installation on the device, rigorous security reviews, and encryption of communication between Echo Spot, the Alexa App and Amazon servers.”

Sources:  Ry Crist, “Amazon Echo Spot review: Alexa's touchscreen misses the sweet spot,” cnet.com, December
Drop-ins described:
Taylor Martin, “How to use Drop In with your Amazon Echo speakers,” cnet.com, June 27, 2017:
Press Association and Phoebe Weston, “Amazon’s creepy plan to put a camera and microphone in every BEDROOM with launch of its £120 Echo Spot ‘smart alarm,’” mailonline.co.uk, January 16, 2018:
Tom Warren, “Amazon’s Echo Spot is a sneaky way to get a camera into your bedroom,” theverge.com, September 28, 2017:

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor