Wall Street Journal Reporter Hassled At LA Airport; Successfully Prevents DHS From Searching Her Phones

from the the-government-will-abuse-your-rights-as-far-as-you'll-let-it dept

Welcome to Bordertown, USA. Population: 200 million. Expect occasional temporary population increases from travelers arriving from other countries. Your rights as a US citizen are indeterminate within 100 miles of US borders. They may be respected. They may be ignored. But courts have decided that the “right” to do national security stuff — as useless as most its efforts are — trumps the rights of US citizens.

Wall Street Journal reporter Maria Abi-Habib – a US-born citizen traveling into the States with her valid passport — discovered this at the Los Angeles International Airport. Her Facebook post describes her interaction with DHS agents who suddenly decided they needed to detain her and seize her electronics.

The DHS agent went on to say she was there to help me navigate immigration because I am a journalist with The Wall Street Journal and have traveled to many dangerous places that are on the US’ radar for terrorism.

It’s generally a good idea to be wary when government employees suddenly offers to “help.”

But after pushing me to the front of a very long line at immigration, she then escorted me to the luggage belt, where I collected my suitcase, and then she took me to a special section of LAX airport. Another customs agent joined her at that point and they grilled me for an hour – asking me about the years I lived in the US, when I moved to Beirut and why, who lives at my in-laws’ house in LA and numbers for the groom and bride whose wedding I was attending.

Abi-Habib was very cooperative. She answered all of the agent’s questions and remained calm despite this interaction being far from ordinary. It didn’t matter. The DHS decided to flex its “our border, our rules” muscle.

[T]hen she asked me for my two cellphones. I asked her what she wanted from them.

“We want to collect information” she said, refusing to specify what kind.

“Collect information.” That’s intrusion and surveillance that serves no discernible purpose. The DHS was obviously hoping Abi-Habib would remain as cooperative as she had during the previous questioning. But Abi-Habib disappointed the DHS agent by suggesting she should talk to the phones’ owner about her search plans, rather than just hope a lengthy, suspicionless detention would prompt Abi-Habib to relinquish consent.

“You’ll have to call The Wall Street Journal’s lawyers, as those phones are the property of WSJ,” I told her, calmly.

She accused me of hindering the investigation – a dangerous accusation as at that point, they can use force. I put my hands up and said I’d done nothing but be cooperative, but when it comes to my phones, she would have to call WSJ’s lawyers.

She said she had to speak to her supervisor about my lack of cooperation and would return.

Obstruction is an actual crime. This wasn’t an empty threat. I mean, it was an empty threat in the way that government officials hand out threats they have no intention of following through with as a means of coercion, but it was not empty as in “without enforceable consequences.” It was meant to make Abi-Habib more receptive to granting the DHS permission to search the phones. But behind the threat is an actual criminal statute that could have turned this from a detention to an arrest. And all because the DHS didn’t want to obtain consent for its search from the phones’ actual owner.

Abi-Habib called the DHS agent’s bluff. The DHS relented.

The female officer returned 30 minutes later and said I was free to go.

Abi-Habib’s post closes by noting she doesn’t fit any terrorism profile and offers security tips for those traveling in and out of the US — like leaving everything behind that could be searched/seized, or travel with a recently-wiped phone.

The DHS’s actions here are disturbing. It suggests agents dig through devices on a regular basis, even when there’s a complete lack of suspicion. Laws and court rulings confirm there is a lowered expectation of privacy at US borders, but the agency’s refusal to follow through with a search of the devices makes it clear agents are looking to hassle people they think won’t fight back — either during the detention, or after the fact with lawsuits and/or public discussions of their treatment. It’s incidents like these that show many public security efforts by government agencies are almost entirely ornamental. It’s the illusion of security, rather than an actual protective effort. Border agents dig around in people’s stuff just because they can, not because they need to.

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Comments on “Wall Street Journal Reporter Hassled At LA Airport; Successfully Prevents DHS From Searching Her Phones”

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60 Comments
Yeah Sure says:

Re: Re: Unreasonable ... Eventual reckoning

While eventual accountability is pretty to contemplate, seventy-five years of experience has demonstrated otherwise. The slippery slope only becomes more slippery and slopier..

“We don’t need no stinken’ accountability. This is a war on sanity.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Unreasonable ... Eventual reckoning

It has to get worse before it gets better.

The pendulum always swings back and forth.

Shit gets corrupt, people notice got used to it and ignore it as much as they can.
Shit show signs of despotic behavior… people take notice cannot get used to it and show inklings of rebellion. (America is very early at this stage with the police shootings)
Shit stays despotic… people get fucking tired realize they have nothing to lose and try to topple the regime or have a civil war.
If good guys are successful (there are not always GOOD guys on one of the sides), things go well again until people forget what helped created the corruption… lazy and worthless fucking citizens doing nothing about it before it gets bad!

Anonymous Coward says:

While they can arrest and detain and obstruction is a real charge, it’s quite possible they’d drop the charge after a punitive arrest and detention because there is no actual investigation to impede. Investigations have targets and reasonable suspicions. You can’t just say, “I’m going to investigate this person” and then waive their 4th amendment rights for them. And the government can’t compel you to breach an employer agreement without a court order. A cop can’t just say, “break your work rules because I want you to.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Always, before going through customs, especially in the US or UK, do a factory data reset your phone to wipe the device, so that is DHS or HM customs seizes the phone, they will not get anything off the phone.

I like to travel bv road over much of the North American continent, but before going throigh either Canadian or US customs, I always do a factory data reset on my phones, so that they will get nothing off my phones.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I don’t get this… my phone is fully encrypted. The FBI has been unable to get anything off of fully encrypted phones. Does the CBP have some secret techniques that the FBI lacks? Or do they expect me to enter my lengthy passcode or use the fingerprint that doesn’t lock out phone access for anything but the passcode?

I’d be mightily annoyed if I had to give up my phone, but it’s not like they could do anything with it once they got it. Oh, and my phone technically belongs to my service provider — I guess I could suggest they contact my (international) service provider’s lawyers for phone access. But that might just get me arrested or locked up without reason. So what’s the actual thing to do here?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

…ship your phone (and laptop or other valuables of importance) ahead to your destination via a parcel service.

You seem to be unaware of the government’s procedures for secretly intercepting, searching and tampering with parcel shipments (e.g. installing malware). At least if you keep it with you, and they take it for “inspection”, you’ll know that they’ve had their fingers on it and you can never trust it again.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Of course I’m aware. However, they don’t (and can’t) do this in a blanket kind of way. You’d have to be someone they have a particular, and great, interest in — and if you are, you probably know or reasonably suspect it.

If you are someone in that category, then your entire security game must be stepped up across the board anyway, and you shouldn’t be using any cell phones except for burners that you only keep for a short period of time.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Terrorist Watch List

Terror Watch List is one such list. I don’t think they’ll necessarily tell you when you’re on the list or how you got on. There’s not much oversight as to who gets on or taken off.

Also see the No Fly list. If you’re on that list, then you won’t be allowed to board a plane, and the TSA will harass you a whole bunch just for the lulz.

Again, there’s no way to get off either of these lists, even if you get on by mistake. (Though there’s supposed to be a redress process.)

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

I’m not sure what you mean here, or what advice I gave that you consider unsound.

Let me be very specific: the government cannot intercept and modify a large number of shipments of equipment, no matter how much they might want to — so this isn’t being done as a blanket policy.

If you ship you phone via parcel service, the government will not even know to intercept your package unless they’re already keeping a very close eye on you, specifically. When I say that if you’re in that select group of people, you’ll know, I mean that either/or:

1) You are engaging in activity that you know is likely to be of exceptional interest to the government. Large scale crime, espionage, journalists covering very sensitive stories, working for a foreign embassy, etc.

2) Intercepting your packages will not be the only thing the government is doing with you. You will be under surveillance from many different angles. Enough so that it borders on certain that you’d notice something was up.

If you’re just a regular Joe, even one that is on the bad side of the government for whatever reason, they aren’t going to waste a very limited resource such as intercepting parcels on you. At worst, they’ll go with actions that are less expensive, like temporarily seizing your phone from you and slipping some spyware on it.

John85851 (profile) says:

I know it sounds racist...

I know it sounds racist, but here’s my travel tip:
Don’t be brown-skinned and don’t have a Middle-Eastern sounding name.

Let’s review the facts:
An American citizen travelling with a valid passport? No problem.
She was on assignment for one of the most well-known newspapers in the US? No problem.
She wasn’t white? Detain her for questioning.
She can have the newspaper back up her travel plans and not allow the searching of her phone? Okay, let her go.

Scote (profile) says:

Nice, but thin dodge

“”You’ll have to call The Wall Street Journal’s lawyers, as those phones are the property of WSJ,” I told her, calmly.”

Unfortunately my degrees from Law & Order and Google University suggest that anyone who has access can grant permission to search the phone – so while I think it was reasonable of her to say “ask the WSJ” it wasn’t a perfect out.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Nice, but thin dodge

Considering that they were apparently not ready to just seize the phones, anything is reasonable to offer, and i don’t think she showed up with a planned and researched “dodge”. She merely said she would prefer to speak to the phones’ owners about it, and that is seemingly too much trouble somehow for them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Nice, but thin dodge

As a journalist, isn’t there some sort of professional code of conduct involving confidentiality of sources?

And wouldn’t she be contractually obligated to her employer to not hand over all of her emails and files to some low ranking nobody at the airport?

What if she worked for a defense contractor or was working on some top secret new multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical?

It was a lose-lose situation for her.

Proto-fascist America is a lose-lose situation for everyone.

Drew (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I have learned this first hand. It’s a long story, but my situation had nothing to do with the border, and yet our ‘right’ to free practice of religion was completely ignored on several counts (even to the point of being told where we’re allowed to take our daughter to church, and being forbidden from observing holidays with her.) Rights only pertain to civil disputes. If any government agency is involved, the very concept becomes moot.

Quiet Lurcker says:

The (ideal) proper response in a situation like this.

I’m free to go? There’s no investigation? Excellent. Turn around and place your hands behind your back. I’m invoking citizens arrest and taking you into custody. The charge is attempted kidnapping and attempted theft of property. I’ll just dial 911 and ask the nice, friendly local police to come and take you into custody.

Quiet Lurcker says:

Re: Re: The (ideal) proper response in a situation like this.

On what grounds?

No “investigation”. No probable cause. No subpoena. No warrant.

Under those conditions, what the TSA people did was flat out illegal. Period. Breaking the law is breaking the law, whether you’re TSA or a private citizen. A felony is a felony.

The TSA agents were being thugs, just trying to cause trouble, full stop. I’ll be the only reason they backed down was because they found out the traveler was a reporter for a respected newspaper. I think it’s a sucker bet that the minute they discovered that, they decided not to push the issue, for fear of prominent, negative publicity.

If she had gone on with the citizens arrest, and in turn arrested her, it would have been splashed across the front page, and Washington D.C. would suddenly find itself in the legal and publicity cross-hairs of the one newspaper that’s still a cheerleader for this administration.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: The (ideal) proper response in a situation like this.

Under those conditions, what the TSA people did was flat out illegal.

Rule of law isn’t really much of a thing in contemporary USA. As for the forth estate coming to the rescue, have you read WSJ lately? Murdoch is arguably a bigger cause of the world’s problems that any government actors. Can’t see him getting too exciting about fighting the authoritarianism he’s worked so hard to install.

Personanongrata says:

Tales from the Banana Republic of America

Your rights as a US citizen are indeterminate within 100 miles of US borders. They may be respected. They may be ignored. But courts have decided that the “right” to do national security stuff — as useless as most its efforts are — trumps the rights of US citizens.

What is an unalienable Right if the Right may be voided by government functionaries at any place and time for any reason?

Anonymous Coward says:

So its the WSJs phones. I would have let the customs inspectors see what was there, to hell with the company legal department. And if I had been fired for it, I would left WSJ off the list of companies I worked for when looking for a new job.

All she had to do was let them look, then leave WSJ off her resume, if she fired for it.

problem solved

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I “agree”.

That’s all anyone needs to do is cooperate with the government. Government shows up at your bank, the bank should just cooperate and give them any of your account information they want. At your email provider, same thing. Agent shows up at your door and asks to search your house, step aside and cooperate.

We have Fourth Amendment rights, yes, but that doesn’t mean we should be uncooperative when the government wants in.

peter says:

And now I know

I worked for a UK defence contractor. We were specifically forbidden from traveling to the states with a laptop that was not completly clean and had never been connected to our company network. We were also issued a brand new mobile phone and were forbidden from traveling with our normal work phone.

Now I know why.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: And now I know

Yeah, these days a good rule of thumb is never cross a US border carrying anything you’re not willing to lose. Electronics, money… if it looks valuable it’s just one claim of ‘suspicious activity’ away from being stolen from you.

Course it doesn’t exactly get much better once you’re past the borders either, so a better rule of thumb would probably be to avoid the US if at all possible should you have anything of value.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

New tech?

This actually presents the opportunity to develop new technology, specifically phones, burner or otherwise, that can be configured and customized completely from a saved file.

The end-user process goes like this:

• Take blank phone (with minimal data) to foreign nation (or purchase one at location)

• At site, get (encrypted) data-and-config kit from FTP.

• Get crypto key from another site

• Configure phone.

• Use phone.

• When returning home, blank and/or toss phone.

• Go home empty handed, with nothing to seize a blank (or mostly blank) phone to surrender.

Avior says:

Re: New tech?

This actually presents the opportunity to develop new technology, specifically phones, burner or otherwise, that can be configured and customized completely from a saved file.

The law would have to be changed as it is currently illegal for certain parts of a cell phone’s firmware to be user alterable. (This is where the government could install it’s own hidden malware.) I don’t foresee the government repealing that law any time soon.

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