Homeland Security Demands Access To Journalist's Phone

Privacy doesn't count at the border, even if the border is in an airport

Security screening area at Denver International Airport

Security screening area at Denver International Airport

This is a security screening area.Danpaluska, via Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0

Borders are arbitrary, human-made constructs. Sure, the lines on a map seem almost pre-ordained, but they change within lifetimes, and get redefined by governments in all sorts of weird little ways. Maria Abi-Habib, a journalist who reports on the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal, found out just how arbitrary borders can be. Flying from Beirut to a wedding in Los Angeles, she writes that was pulled aside by agents of the Department of Homeland Security, who screened her for an extra hour and then demanded access to her cellphones.

As Maria Abi-Habib details in a post on Facebook:

[The agent] handed me a DHS document, a photo of which I've attached. It basically says the U.S. government has the right to seize my phones and my rights as a U.S. citizen (or citizen of the world) go out the window. This law applies at any point of entry into the U.S., whether naval, air or land and extends for 100 miles into the US from the border or formal points of entry. So, all of NY city for instance. If they forgot to ask you at JFK airport for your phones, but you're having a drink in Manhattan the next day, you technically fall under this authority. And because they are acting under the pretense to protect the US from terrorism, you have to give it up. So I called their bluff. "You'll have to call The Wall Street Journal's lawyers, as those phones are the property of WSJ," I told her, calmly.

Abi-Habib's full post is worth reading, especially for the section on technology at the end. In Abi-Habib's case, she was able to get through without divulging her contacts or any information on her phone thanks to the threat of legal action from a major newspaper. Her advice for securing phones is to use encryption as a baseline, but that anything truly sensitive should be transferred to paper and secured physically, then deleted from the phone. (She even recommends a full factory reset on the phone for traveling, so that there is no information on it).

Her suggestions and experience line up with reporting from the Committee to Protect Journalists:

"Do journalists need to be worried about getting harassed at the border and getting their stuff searched at the border, whether it's their backpack or their electronic devices? Hell yeah," Electronic Frontier Foundation's staff attorney Hanni Fakhoury, an expert on individuals' rights at the U.S. border, told CPJ. "If you're a journalist that works in any type of capacity writing and investigating the government... whether that's in the U.S. or abroad, you've got to be careful, because the border is an easy place for the government to make a pretextual search of you without having to necessarily justify their reasons for doing so," said Fakhoury, who spent years litigating border-related investigations when he worked as a federal public defender in Southern California.

There is some legal precedent, now, for treating information on cellphones as more private than papers in a wallet. Still, the safest bet for travelers wishing to retain private information may just be knowing nothing, or at least, making sure one's phone knows nothing.