Border Control

Alex Gil, Device Security at the Border Workshop

Portrait of Alex Gil, by Gretchen Röehrs Alex Gil, by Gretchen Röehrs

When you cross the US border, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents can search your electronic devices without a warrant or any degree of personalized suspicion. While these searches aren’t new—they began under George W. Bush and spiked sharply under Barack Obama—they’re likely to skyrocket under Trump. According to NBC News, 2017 is on pace to be a “blockbuster year” for device searches at the border: February 2017 saw 5,000 searches, more than in all of 2015. And anecdotal evidence suggests that CBP agents are acting more aggressively than ever before.

Alex Gil is Digital Scholarship Coordinator for Humanities and History at Columbia University in New York. He spoke to us about a recent workshop he held with his colleagues called Device Security at the Border. He shared some advice about how to protect your devices at the border, and why the election of Trump means we should prepare for the worst.

This interview took place in early 2017.

Tell us about the Device Security at the Border workshop. What was the purpose of the workshop, and what did it consist of?

The teach-in took place on February 10, 2017 at Columbia University. My co-moderators, Professor Manan Ahmed and Professor Dennis Tenen, came up with the idea, wrote the course prep, and led the workshop. The workshop was done in tandem with the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)—our lab having recently joined the Electronic Frontier Alliance—and their indispensable articles and tutorials inspired much of the lesson plan. The impetus was the visible increase in invasive behavior from border officers right after the first “Muslim Ban” Executive Order (EO).

The event was standing room only. While it was geared towards academics and researchers in particular, it was also open to the general public. Many of us are actively involved in research in the countries named in that first EO, or otherwise we hail from those countries. Our research is often sensitive or can be taken out of context by border authorities, leading to unwarranted trouble at the border.

The event lasted a bit over an hour. The first thirty minutes or so, Tenen and Ahmed led the group through several scenarios for minimizing the risk of losing data, devices, or worse. After their presentation was over, they opened up the discussion to the room. Towards the end of the workshop, participants were prompted to list their personal device vulnerabilities on a piece of paper, an exercise that could help them better plan for crossing the border.

What are CBP agents doing with people’s devices at the border? Whom are they targeting? What kind of information are they looking for? And what’s the legal basis for all of this?

The CBP is inspecting travelers’ devices: laptops, cameras, phones, etc. In some cases, they will examine your devices in front of you. In others, they will confiscate the devices for more thorough examination. These confiscations can sometimes last several days. Your device is taken offsite to be handled by technical experts, where they may make full copies of your data before they return the device to you. CBP agents are also asking people to list their social media accounts, so that they can rummage through your online life and networks.

The handout that they give targeted passengers provide the stated reasons for the searches, including: incomplete documentation, a previous violation, or having the same name as “a person of interest.” Such latitude makes it easy for them to discriminate based on ethnicity, occupation, or origin, which we have reason to believe is happening. It goes without saying that travelers from or to Muslim countries, whether they are on the banned list or not, are particularly vulnerable in our current atmosphere.

We can only suspect what they are looking for. On their information sheet they only tell us they are looking to verify citizenship and the “admissibility” of foreign nationals, or trying to deter terrorism and locate contraband. But in reality, we have already seen a few passengers being harassed outside of this criteria.

As Tenen and Ahmed pointed out during the teach-in, we can’t provide any legal advice. We do know that many of the current debates happen around the so-called “border search exception,” which allows CBP to search and seize property at international borders. Even if the Fourth Amendment requires the government to have a warrant for searches, these protections don’t apply at the border, where a warrant is not needed to seize and inspect your property.

According to the EFF, "for now, a border agent has the legal authority to search your electronic devices at the border even if she has no reason to think that you’ve done anything wrong." We also know that legislative or judiciary attempts to restrict what border agents can do has not had much success so far. For more detailed information, I point readers to the EFF’s excellent Digital Privacy at the U.S. Border, in particular “Part 2: Constitutional Rights, Government Policies, and Privacy at the Border.”

Did these device searches begin with Trump, or have they been going on for awhile?

These searches did not begin with Trump. The ACLU reports that between October and June 2010, 6,500 people had their devices searched at the border. Then in 2016, we started seeing an exponential increase under Obama. As Gillian Flaccus from the Associated Press reported, numbers provided by CBP show that “in 2016, under the Obama administration, there were 23,877 electronic media searches [and in] fiscal year 2015, there were 4,764 electronic media searches.”

While the searches did not begin with Trump, a Trump presidency, with near-complete GOP control of government, is likely to make the situation worse. We still don’t have reliable figures, or at least any that I can find, for the post-inauguration period. But when you couple the rabid xenophobia and Islamophobia of the moment with the Administration’s rampant paranoia and tenuous hold on facts, we can only assume that abuses at the border will increase.

In an unprecedented act, the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council and the National Border Patrol Council—the unions that represent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and CBP, respectively—voted to endorse Trump’s candidacy, leading us to believe that many members share the beliefs of the president. Given the discretion that agents have at the border, we should prepare for the worst.

Could you give us a few specific examples of folks who’ve had their devices searched? What are the stories you’ve been hearing?

Some prominent cases have risen to national and international attention, even before the election. One of them involved Maria Abi-Habib, a Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. On July 14, 2016, she was detained at the Los Angeles airport, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents attempted to confiscate her devices, but apparently did not succeed. Her case became famous when she posted what had happened on Facebook.

A few months later, on October 1, 2016, Ed Ou, an award-winning Canadian photojournalist who had also covered the Middle East, was on his way to cover the Dakota Access Pipeline on behalf of the CBC, when he was detained for six hours and his devices briefly confiscated before he was denied entry to the U.S.

Two days after Trump signed the first Muslim Ban, a few cases came in rapid succession that brought the conversation back to a head nationally. On January 29, 2017, Ali Hamedani, a reporter for BBC World Service, was detained at Chicago O’Hare, and CBP “searched his phone and computer and read his Twitter feed” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. On the same day, CNN’s Mohammed Tawfeeq was detained at the Atlanta airport—now the subject of a lawsuit.

A couple of days later, on January 31, 2017, Sidd Bikkannavar, a NASA engineer, was detained at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport after returning from Chile. Despite his entreaties, his device was confiscated for a short period of time. Like Abi-Habib, Bikkannavar wrote a post about the experience on Facebook that went viral. “I’m definitely not an immigrant or a newcomer to the country, despite my foreign-sounding name and the color of my skin,” he told The Atlantic. Welcome back to Trump’s America, I say.

How can people protect themselves from device searches at the border? What kind of precautions should they take before they travel, and what should they do if they are questioned or detained?

The bottom line is don’t bring your devices to the border if you don’t want them to be searched or confiscated. If you have sensitive data, don't bring your devices to the border. If you don’t want border patrol to snoop around your social media, don’t bring your devices to the border.

If you need your device, you can work to minimize your exposure:

  • Mail your hard drive or device to a friend or family member prior to arrival.
  • Use a cheap throw-away computer like a Chromebook.
  • Use a travel phone and keep your SIM card separate.

You can also store data in the cloud to prevent CBP from doing forensic work on your device—although CBP has been asking for passwords to social media accounts. While the legality of such a request is dubious, not cooperating with CBP may cause other hassles for you. This is why we recommend social media prudence in general, whether at the border or not.

If you are questioned or detained you should be courteous, truthful, and unobtrusive. This is the advice of the EFF, and seems as good advice as any other. Many of these recommendations and more can be found in EFF’s Digital Privacy at the U.S. Border, which you should read if you are considering travel and believe that you may be a target or have sensitive information to protect.

Could you tell us a bit about your other projects, and how they might relate to ongoing efforts by technologists to resist this Administration?

Our Columbia Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities has had an activist bent ever since Ahmed, Tenen and I founded it three years ago. All three of us are immigrants, researchers, and technologists, and our social justice work began long before Trump became president.

One of our most beloved projects is RikersBot, which came out of a series of workshops on digital storytelling and the fundamentals of coding at Rikers Island for the young inmates held there. The goal was to have them write a simple Twitter bot that would randomize and post their tweets. Since computers are not allowed at Rikers, they would write their tweets on notebooks we provided. You can still read them at @rikersbot.

After Trump won, we began brainstorming possible ways to resist. Moacir de Sá Pereira, one of our closest collaborators, recently provided some provocative comic relief with his web app, The Trumprover, “where you can improve on Donald Trump’s tweets—or at least add verisimilitude.” In January, our colleague Martin Eve visited from England and we worked on TrumpTube, an early framework for exploring the Trump phenomenon on YouTube. And, because of the success of our Device Security at the Border and other workshops, we are going to hold more of them in the foreseeable future.

At the end of the day, though, the work we do in the humanities and in history—the work of evidence, reason, and critical interpretation—remains the most effective technology we have against Trump and the GOP. Resist.


This has been a free interview from Tech Against Trump, a book by Logic chronicling the rising tide of anti-Trump resistance by tech workers and technologists.

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