Former Mozilla Chief Technical Officer Andreas Gal filed today a civil rights complaint against the US Customs and Border Protection agency after a November 2018 incident during which Gal was detained and questioned at the San Francisco International Airport, asked to unlock devices, and denied a lawyer.
The incident took place on November 29, last year, according to a copy of the civil rights complaint obtained by ZDNet that Gal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed against the CBP.
Gal, who is a US citizen, said that after returning from a trip to Europe, the Global Entry kiosk directed him to a CBP agent who kept his passport and sent Gal through a secondary inspection.
For the subsequent hours, three armed agents wearing bulletproof vests questioned the former Mozilla CTO about his trip, his current Apple employment, his past work at Mozilla, and his work as a privacy advocate.
The interrogation and search took place just a week after Apple publicly confirmed plans to buy Silk Labs, the AI-focused startup that Gal started after he left Mozilla in 2015. But in an interview with ZDNet today, Gal said that agents focused their interrogation on other topics.
"I was asked at length about my work for Mozilla," Gal said. "Until this incident, I have never been questioned like this by the CBP in my life."
"The only thing that changed recently is that I have spoken out against Trump administration policies, including immigration policies and CBP," Gal added. "I can't be sure which of these (or other) signals triggered the search, but it definitely has a chilling effect on free speech."
Things escalated after agents searched his personal belongings and requested access to a laptop and smartphone he had in possession at the time.
"This was rather concerning for me," Gal wrote today in a Medium blog post and ACLU press release. "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."
According to the civil rights complaint, CBP agents knew very well at the time of the interrogation that these devices --a MacBookPro and an iPhone XS-- were Apple property.
The laptop bears a sticker reading "PROPERTY OF APPLE. PROPRIETARY." The phone has a sticker with a serial number but not Apple's name; its lockscreen displays the legend "Confidential and Proprietary," and includes a number to call if the device is found.
When they discovered Dr. Gal's Apple-issued electronic devices, the officers first asked Dr. Gal to pull up his itinerary on his mobile phone, and then to hand the unlocked device over to CBP. Dr. Gal responded that he would email them the itinerary, but that he would need to speak with a lawyer and his employer before giving CBP officers full access to his mobile phone.
When CBP agents demanded Gal's phone passcode and laptop password, Gal declined the request.
"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," Gal said.
Officers retaliated by telling Gal "that he had no right to an attorney."
They subsequently continued to ask for Gal's phone passcode and laptop password multiple times, threatened to confiscate and keep the devices, and tried to intimidate him by claiming he was breaking the law and threatened him with criminal prosecution.
The ACLU explains the illegality of this request:
After Dr. Gal made clear that he would not unlock his devices without first consulting with his employer and an attorney, a CBP officer stated that Dr. Gal was legally required to supply his passwords in response to their request. The CBP agent told Dr. Gal to "look up 18 U.S.C. § 111," which states that any person who "forcibly assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with" a federal officer in the performance of official duties is committing a federal crime. One of the officers later wrote "18 U.S.C. 111" on a piece of paper and handed it to Dr. Gal. This threat of criminal prosecution had no basis in fact or law.
"I declined to answer any further questions, and continued to ask to speak to an attorney instead. The interrogation and threats continued for some time, which I endured silently," Gal wrote about his ordeal.
He was eventually allowed to leave, with his devices, but agents confiscated Gal's Global Entry card and told him his privileges would be revoked.
"These so-called border searches are not random," Gal said. "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," he added.
Now, Gal and the ACLU want the DHS to investigate this abuse of power on behalf of the overzealous CBP. The ACLU has contested the CBP's overreaching powers numerous times in the past.