Former Mozilla CTO Ordered To Unlock Devices At US Border

The actions of three US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are under the spotlight after they detained Apple employee Andreas Gal at San Francisco airport, following a business trip aboard.

Gal, who was also the former chief technology officer at Mozilla Foundation, was detained for three hours after he refused to unlock his work Macbook Pro and iPhone XS. Both were clearly labelled as “Property of Apple. Proprietary.”

Gal claimed in a blog post on Medium that on 29 November the three US Customs and Border Protection officers “started to question me aggressively regarding my trip, my current employment, and my past work for Mozilla.”

Travelling in fear

“The agents proceeded to search my belongings and demanded that I unlock my smartphone and laptop,” wrote Gal. “This was rather concerning for me. My phone and laptop are property of my employer and contain unreleased software and proprietary information. I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement promising not to give anyone access.”

Gal repeatedly asked the border agents to speak to Apple or a lawyer before he would unlock his devices.

“This request seemed to aggravate the customs officers,” wrote Gal. “They informed me that I had no right to speak to an attorney at the border despite being a US citizen, and threatened me that failure to immediately comply with their demand is a violation of federal criminal code 18 USC 111.”

Gal felt the three agents were carrying out an unreasonable search and seizure, and then refused to answer any more of their questions.

“I declined to answer any further questions, and continued to ask to speak to an attorney instead,” wrote Gal.

“The interrogation and threats continued for some time, which I endured silently,” he said. “Despite initial threats that they would keep my devices if I didn’t unlock them, I was eventually permitted to leave the customs area with my devices. The customs agents did however keep my Global Entry card as a punishment for not complying with their demands.”

US Border Protection

Gal said that he has since learned that his experience was not unique, and that US CBP officers have a “long history of mistreating foreigners, immigrants, and asylum seekers entering the US.”

He wrote that more recently CBP has also started to aggressively question, unlawfully detain, and in some cases physically assault US citizens crossing the border.

And it seems these border searches are not random.

“NBC recently reported that CBP maintains dossiers of US citizens and targets lawyers, journalists, and activists, and monitors social media activity of US citizens,” Gal wrote.

“My past work on encryption and online privacy is well documented, and so is my disapproval of the Trump administration and my history of significant campaign contributions to Democratic candidates,” he said. “I wonder whether these CBP programs led to me being targeted.”

“If the government intended to scare me, they certainly succeeded,” he said. “Ever since, I travel in fear. I’ve reduced my international travel and my heart pounds every time I go through US customs. I will, however, not be silent.”

He called on the US Congress to step in and provide meaningful oversight and legislation to reign in CBP’s “egregious misconduct.”

Biometric access

In January this year a US judge threw a very large spanner into efforts by US authorities to get suspects to unlock their electronic devices.

Northern California federal judge Judge Kandis Westmore issued the potential landmark ruling when she decided that American law enforcement officials could not force a person to unlock their mobile phone with their face or finger.

In October 2018 it should be remembered, the FBI forced an owner of an Apple iPhone X to unlock his device using its built in facial recognition.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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