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Former Mozilla CTO files complaint against border patrol over warrantless phone search

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Andreas Gal, the former CTO of Mozilla and a current employee of Apple, is filing a complaint against US customs agents who allegedly tried to intimidate him into handing over his phone and laptop passcodes. Gal and the American Civil Liberties Union are asking the Department of Homeland Security for an investigation of an incident last year, which Gal recounted in a blog post titled “No one should have to travel in fear.” It’s part of a protracted fight over warrantless searches at the US border, a practice that’s become especially fraught after the Trump administration implemented more aggressive and invasive policies.

According to the ACLU’s complaint, Customs and Border Protection agents in San Francisco International Airport stopped and interrogated Gal — a Hungarian-born US citizen — as he returned from a business trip in Sweden. The agents allegedly demanded that he hand over the passcodes to his Apple-issued phone and computer. When Gal asked to speak to an attorney, they allegedly threatened him with criminal prosecution for resisting a federal officer, “interrogated him about every aspect of his travel and his possessions,” and revoked his expedited Global Entry status for “refusal to comply with a search.”

In his blog post, Gal explains that he wanted to be sure unlocking the devices wouldn’t violate an Apple non-disclosure agreement. “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,” he writes. The ACLU complaint adds that “critically, Dr. Gal never refused to provide the passcodes to access the electronic devices in his possession.”

Gal and the ACLU speculate that the search was motivated by suspicion over Gal’s previous privacy advocacy and his political opinions, stating that the agents asked detailed questions about his work with the privacy-conscious Mozilla — which Gal left back in 2015 to help found Silk Labs, an AI startup that was later acquired by Apple. The Department of Homeland Security didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the complaint or its allegations.

The ACLU already helped file a suit against CBP in 2017, alleging that it violated the constitutional rights of several people whose devices were searched at the border — including NASA engineer Sidd Bikkannavar, who was detained and pressured to unlock a device issued by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That case is still ongoing. Here, it wants the Department of Homeland Security to specifically investigate whether the border patrol agency’s treatment of Gal was constitutional, and more broadly, “a comprehensive review of CBP’s policies to determine if they are consistent with the agency’s obligations under the US Constitution and laws.”

Agents can generally search people at the border without a warrant or reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. But a series of lawsuits have challenged whether electronic devices contain so much personal information that they should require a higher standard. CBP has updated its guidelines in recent years to partially address privacy concerns, requiring reasonable suspicion to copy or analyze data from a device — although that hasn’t quelled the controversy over these searches.