Apple employee files complaint against U.S. Customs for asking to unlock company devices

Andreas Gal, an employee at Apple Inc., was stopped at SFO in December. Gal claims Border Patrol told him he didn't have the right to speak to a lawyer.

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The ACLU Foundation of Northern California (ACLU-NC) filed a complaint against the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security today on behalf of Apple employee Andreas Gal. 

"I’m not an attorney, and I have no prior experience with federal law enforcement, but I did study the U.S. Constitution as part of my citizenship test three years ago. I wasn’t sure what the legal definition of an unreasonable search and seizure was, but three armed men detaining me, threatening me, and refusing to allow me to consult with an attorney definitely felt like one," said Gal in a Medium blog post titled "No one should have to travel in fear."

Last December, when Gal was returning to San Francisco from a business trip to Europe, the kiosk instructed him to follow a Customs and Border Patrol agent for a secondary inspection. 

Andreas Gal was detained at SFO airport.
Andreas Gal was detained at SFO airport.

There I quickly found myself surrounded by three armed agents wearing bullet proof vests. They started to question me aggressively regarding my trip, my current employment, and my past work for Mozilla, a non-profit organization dedicated to open technology and online privacy.

The agents proceeded to search my belongings and demanded that I unlock my smartphone and laptop. This was rather concerning for me. My phone and laptop are property of my employer and contain unreleased software and proprietary information. I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement promising not to give anyone access.

Because I was uncertain about my legal responsibilities to my employer, I asked the agents if I could speak to my employer or an attorney before unlocking my devices. This request seemed to aggravate the customs officers. They informed me that I had no right to speak to an attorney at the border despite being a U.S. citizen, and threatened me that failure to immediately comply with their demand is a violation of federal criminal code 18 USC 111.


The ACLU-NC complaint is asking for an investigation into whether the incident at SFO may have violated the First and Fourth Amendments. Gal has had quite a bit of encryption and online privacy work experience and he has donated significantly to Democratic candidates, which may have put a bullseye on his back. 


These so-called border searches are not random. NBC recently reported that CBP maintains dossiers of U.S. citizens and targets lawyers, journalists, and activists, and monitors social media activity of U.S. citizens. My past work on encryption and online privacy is well documented, and so is my disapproval of the Trump administration and my history of significant campaign contributions to Democratic candidates. I wonder whether these CBP programs led to me being targeted.

If the government intended to scare me, they certainly succeeded. Ever since, I travel in fear. I’ve reduced my international travel and my heart pounds every time I go through U.S. customs. I will, however, not be silent.

When I became a U.S. citizen I swore to defend the Constitution. I’m a proud U.S. citizen and I take my oath seriously. It is in that spirit that I have filed a civil rights complaint with the help of the ACLU against CBP for unlawfully detaining me and violating my constitutional rights. The time is overdue for Congress to step in and provide meaningful oversight and legislation to reign in CBP’s egregious misconduct.


“Keeping America safe and enforcing our nation’s laws in an increasingly digital world depends on our ability to lawfully examine all materials entering the U.S.,” a CBP representative said in a statement.

After a prolonged interrogation, Andreas Gal was allowed to leave with his devices. His Global Entry card was taken. CBP informed him that his privileges would be revoked for refusal to comply with the search.

“CBP’s baseless detention and intrusive interrogation of Andreas Gal and the attempted search of his devices violated his Fourth Amendment rights,” said William Freeman, ACLU-NC Senior Counsel. “Furthermore, CBP’s policies lack protections for First Amendment rights by allowing interrogation and device searches that may be based on a traveler’s political beliefs, activism, nation of origin, or identity.”

“Digital devices contain huge amounts of personal data about our lives and our work,” said Jacob Snow, Technology and Civil Liberties Attorney at the ACLU-NC. “Border Patrol agents should not be able to access this data without a search warrant.”

With border security at the top of the Trump administration's list of priorities, it is important to be mindful of your rights. Andreas Gal did right by his company Apple, but he also stood up for the rights of all citizens. Don't just assume CBP is telling you the truth when trying to force you to unlock devices and power down cellphones, tablets, and laptops before landing after international flights. Many devices with biometric features will require you to type in your password before unlocking facial or touch-based authentication. This may sound grim, but it will prevent forced unlocking in those secondary interrogation rooms. We will be sure to update our readers on this story as the ACLU-NC continues to fight for our constitutional rights.

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Asif Khan is the CEO and majority shareholder of Shacknews. He began his career in video game journalism as a freelancer in 2001 for Tendobox.com. Asif is a CPA and was formerly an investment adviser representative. After much success in his own personal investments, he retired from his day job in financial services and is currently focused on new private investments. His favorite PC game of all time is Duke Nukem 3D, and he is an unapologetic fan of most things Nintendo. Asif first frequented the Shack when it was sCary's Shugashack to find all things Quake. When he is not immersed in investments or gaming he is a purveyor of fine electronic music. Asif also has an irrational love of Cleveland sports.

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