US device searches at borders ignite resistance

US device searches at borders ignite resistance

Aaron Gach wasn't expecting U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to demand to search his smartphone when he returned to San Fransisco from Belgiu

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Aaron Gach wasn’t expecting U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to demand to search his smartphone when he returned to San Fransisco from Belgium in February.

The artist and magician, a U.S. citizen, had just attended an art event near Brussels and was targeted for advanced screening by CBP after his flight landed in the U.S. During a series of questions from CBP agents (“Did you pack your bag yourself?”), they repeatedly asked to search his smartphone, Gach said.

“Do you understand that if you choose not to unlock your phone we may need to detain your other personal effects?” one agent told him, according to a description of the encounter that Gach posted online.

Gach, who travels frequently, was shocked and surprised by the demand to search his device, he said in an interview. He initially resisted, saying a search would violate his privacy, but eventually relented by unlocking his phone for the agents, who then took the phone out of his sight for about 10 minutes.

Gach, working with the American Civil Liberties Union to protest the search, “felt pretty coerced” into turning over the phone, he said. “On the whole, I find that situation pretty upsetting.”

Why resist the search? The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, protecting residents against unreasonable searches and seizures is “pretty clear,” he said. 

“Either you have rights, or you don’t have rights,” Gach added. “Standing up for your rights is not an admission of guilt or innocence.”

Gach’s position is echoed by digital rights groups like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Under current guidelines, CBP can search a device without “any suspicion” of a crime and with no court-ordered warrant, said Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

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