Indeed, there was no line whatsoever in the main intake room with the Orwellian police state kiosks that demand ID and take your photograph, printing out a slip that you’re then expected to take to a Customs and Border Protection agent at a booth. There was only one person in the line at the booth in front of me. Despite having smooth sailing the previous year, this year was very different. After checking my ID, the initial CBP agent told me to report to a room off to the left, aka “secondary”.
After years of reporting on my talk radio program about the unconstitutional device searches going on at CBP checkpoints, I finally became part of the statistics. I was to have my devices searched in secret – or have them confiscated. According to the AP, CBP conducted searches of 29,000 devices in 2017, up from 18,400 in 2016, a 57% increase from the previous year! The Electronic Frontier Foundation is suing over it but the border device search policy has been infringing on travelers’ privacy for over a decade.
CBP’s argument is basically that you don’t have rights at the border and they can search whatever they want. Though their policy was recently updated to clarify they supposedly can’t search your online accounts via your phone, how would you really know? Even though they’re supposed to put your phone in airplane mode when they search it, they are allowed to search it in secret, where you can’t observe. That means they can image your phone, plant something on it, and access your accounts, or they could follow their rules and not do those things. You have no idea.
In my case, I went into “secondary”, located off to the side of the main intake area. It was a dismal room with institutional lighting and a bunch of CBP officers sitting behind a counter that stretched the length of the room. Given the time of day, there weren’t many victims of the CBP’s aggression sitting in the several rows of chairs, but there were a handful. All of them with brown skin, waiting around to be “served” by one of the officious, uniformed CBP bureaucrats shuffling about. As each new victim entered the room and sat down, inevitably the victim would pull out their phone in an attempt to kill the time and would be shouted at by a bureaucrat: “no phones!”. No cell phone signs that looked like they were printed 15 years ago had been posted all over the room. For a group of bureaucrats with camera systems everywhere, they sure are awful concerned about pictures being taken of their drab, boring office.Anyway, after waiting for a bit, an overweight Asian female officer called me up and had some questions about my name, like why I changed it. I told her, “I wanted to.” I understand that due to CBP refusing to respect rights at the border, you’re expected to answer questions about your identity and your travel, but beyond that scope you are not obligated to answer questions. She had me go sit back down for more waiting. Eventually an “Officer Uzzi”, also a portly New Yorker male-type, called me up to his counter. We were to go back to the table in the back hallway for a search. Uzzi acted like he’d be able to get this taken care of as quickly as possible. I knew better than to believe him. I’d gone into the office at about 5:30am and though there was no clock on the wall, it was taking a while and I suspected I’d miss my connecting flight to Boston despite it being at 8:00am.
After Uzzi pawed through my backpack and checked bag they’d had the Delta crew retrieve for them, it came time for the device search. At this point, from the reporting we’ve done on the issue on Free Talk Live, I know that you can choose to refuse to allow them to search the devices, but if you do, they will confiscate them. Whether you can ever get them back is another question. So, since most people don’t want to have to buy a new phone and laptop every time they come back into the U.S. and leaving them at home is probably not an option, CBP knows people are stuck in a place where 99.9% of their victims will hand over their devices for the unconstitutional search.
To Uzzi’s credit, he was fine with me observing his search, which included my camera, cell phone, and laptop. His search was cursory, at best. He opened up the photos app on my cell phone and looked at pictures of my dog and a bunch of landscape backgrounds. Not that I have anything incriminating, but on principle, I’d deleted most photos from my phone before arriving back in the United States. Also, when traveling I use a sanitized laptop that only has a web browser and remote desktop software on it, so there wasn’t much for him to see there either. While paging through the photos on my camera, he came across the photos of me with Ron Paul. I asked him if he knew who that was and he said he did, recalling Paul’s last name after a moment. Afterwards, it was more sitting and waiting.
During this batch of waiting, there was a lot of interaction with a rotund manager bureaucrat into whose office Uzzi would report more than a few times. It wasn’t possible to catch all of the conversation from where I was seated, but the manager, who told me later he was “Supervisor Van Ihsen”, definitely was making a bunch of phone calls to someone else. I also could have sworn I heard them say something about “child porn”. Longtime readers of this blog will recall when my home radio studio were raided and dozens of devices confiscated back in 2016. No charges have been filed against anyone who works or lives here in three years, and they still have the devices. The raid had been a part of the FBI’s running of a child porn website called Playpen, where for two weeks they allowed thousands of child porn images and videos to be downloaded hundreds of thousands of times. Recent news shows they are continuing to facilitate illegal distribution of child porn by taking over and running child porn chat rooms for at least eighteen months, despite not one single known arrest from their latest investigation.
In the three hours CBP detained and searched me, not a single other person in the room was searched, and several victims came and went during that time, all of them with brown skin. One lady was told she was being denied entry and the officer said he was going to give her a choice – she could accept the decision and go back to Ghana and apply again for a VISA or he could just deny her entry for the next five years. He acted like he was doing her a favor. Presumably, interactions like this go on all day in what CPB refers to as “Secondary”.Uzzi eventually called me up and told me I was free to go. I was able to check my phone and at that point I’d been detained there for ninety minutes. However, as I was leaving secondary, they decided they weren’t done with me after all and ordered me back in and told me to sit and wait some more.
After more waiting, I was told again to come back to their search table and was met this time by two plainclothes, badge-on-a-necklace individuals who previously had been joking around with their uniformed coworkers during the time I’d been sitting. It was now time for a second search of my devices, by people who seemed to know what they were doing. Finding a cryptocurrency sticker in my backpack, one officer, whose name was allegedly Kragoras, asked me if I was into crypto, referring to “hodling” and saying he knows about it and has had crypto in the past. They then asked me for the password to my phone. I told them I wasn’t willing to give that to them, but I’d be willing to unlock the phone for them and turn off the lock feature. They agreed and I provided the unlocked phone to them. Kragoras, thin and Middle Eastern, and his tall and skinny cohort then began to leave the search area and I protested saying I wanted to observe the search. He then claimed that they have special border search powers and left with my three devices, though he never asked me to login to the laptop, so they shouldn’t have been able to search that since it’s an encrypted linux operating system.
After more waiting, the officers brought back my devices and left them with Uzzi. To their credit, they did not falsify charges against me by planting anything on the phone. However, did they image my device and copy everything from it? There’s no way to know. The phone was returned to me in airplane mode, which suggests they were following their own rules and didn’t access my internet accounts through the phone, but I can’t know for sure, since I was prohibited from observing their search. Besides, I’d logged out of my google account and instant messaging clients before arriving back in the United States, as I know to prepare my devices in case a search like this happens. It finally did.
Uzzi again met with supervisor Van Ihsen and I was ultimately released at about 8:30am, three hours after initially detained. At this point I demanded to know the names of everyone who’d interacted with me. As is common with bureaucrats, they refused to provide first names, but Uzzi and Van Ihsen revealed their last names. However Van Ihsen initially refused to provide the names of the two plainclothes agents who’d conducted the secret search of my devices. After pressing him on it, he relented and gave me Kragoras’ name. He acted like he didn’t know who the second plainclothes guy was.
Before letting me go, they asked if I’d taken a photo of their office since being given back the devices. Sadly I had not considered sneaking a photo of their boring, dull office, but it turns out that I didn’t have to, because they posted a picture of the exact place I was on their own website here. You can see the tall counter behind which a multitude of bureaucrats sits as they decide the fates of countless peaceful people simply trying to come to what they believe is a free country, and you can even see one of the “no cell phones” signs as well. The very room they are so worried about being photographed, they themselves photographed.
And yes, I did miss my connecting flight. Delta scheduled me for the next one gratis.
With the numbers of devices being searched going up in recent years, don’t think this can’t happen to you. Consider preparing your devices for search prior to coming back into the country by removing any information or accounts you don’t want government agents to see. Or, prepare to lose your devices to confiscation if you don’t allow the search. Meanwhile the EFF’s lawsuit is the only hope to get this policy ended.