ACLU files complaint with U.S. DHS over unwarranted interrogation of Apple employee and attempted device search

Today the ACLU Foundation of Northern California (ACLU-NC) filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on behalf of Andreas Gal who, on November 29, 2018, was subjected to interrogation and retaliation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for questioning the unwarranted search of his electronic devices. The complaint demands an investigation into whether CBP’s interrogation and search of Gal was consistent with the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as well as a comprehensive review of CBP’s policies to determine if they are consistent with the agency’s obligations under the U.S. Constitution and laws.

Andreas Gal is a successful entrepreneur and technologist who has been an outspoken proponent of online privacy, an opponent of warrantless mass surveillance, and a strong opponent of the current administration’s policies. Upon arrival at the San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Gal was interrogated by three CBP officers who demanded to search his electronic devices. Gal, who is currently employed by one of the world’s largest tech companies and bound by the company’s non-disclosure agreements, asked to speak to a lawyer before giving CBP officers access to his devices. CBP officers repeatedly told Gal that he had no right to an attorney and threatened him with criminal prosecution.

After an extended interrogation, Gal was allowed to leave with his devices, however, his Global Entry card was taken and he was told his privileges would be revoked because he refused 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 of Northern California 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, ACLU of Northern California staff attorney. “Border Patrol agents should not be able to access this data without a search warrant.”

CBP must ensure that its officers comply with the U.S. Constitution. The attempted unconstitutional search of Gal’s devices illustrates that CBP’s policies do not include the requirements necessary to safeguard the constitutional rights of people at the border.

Source: ACLU Foundation of Northern California

MacDailyNews Take: ACLU Foundation of Northern California’s full letter of complaint states, in part:

Andreas Gal is a successful entrepreneur and technologist, currently employed by Apple, Inc. He is the former Chief Executive Officer of a company he founded called Silk Labs and the former Chief Technology Officer of Mozilla Corporation, which makes the popular Firefox web browser and other products. Dr. Gal has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of California at Irvine.

Read more in the ACLU Foundation of Northern California’s full letter of complaint here.

Regarding American citizens, as we wrote in March 2017:

Until/unless some legal clarification(s)/protection(s) arise, [U.S] travelers concerned about their privacy could extend their Fourth Amendment rights around the world by using a “traveler phone” that only contains what you want it to contain. “Sure, ossifer, here’s my iPhone and Passcode. Have at it!”

Barring that tactic, look to the cloud:

“Since at least the Snowden disclosures, conventional wisdom has been that your data is safest in your immediate physical possession, rather than the cloud, because while general warrants can (apparently) be issued against cloud data, media in one’s possession is immune to anything but an old fashioned physical search,” Ken Kinder writes for Hacker Noon. “But in the case of a border crossing, the cloud actually becomes a safer place, provided your laptop or cell phone doesn’t have access to it. As long as there’s no nexus between your device and the cloud, you aren’t crossing the border with that cloud data, so it’s not subject to search (bold emphasis added- MDN Ed.).”

“Since cloud data is immune from a border search, you can encrypt your data, store it in the cloud, wipe your devices prior to crossing, then restore your data after crossing in relative safety,” Kinder writes. “This is, obviously, an arduous process… Even worse, traveling is when we use our devices most. We entertain ourselves on planes, find amenities at airports, and even change itineraries during travel using those devices. To ameliorate some of the pain, I am creating special ‘travel-only’ Google accounts and user profiles on my devices, which will remain active while I travel.”

Much more in the full article here.

Apple’s Silk Labs purchase pushes artificial intelligence to the edge; Apple could give Siri an offline mode – November 21, 2018
Apple acquires artificial intelligence startup Silk Labs – November 21, 2018
U.S. Customs can search phones but not data stored solely in the cloud – July 14, 2017
U.S. Immigration spent record amount on phone hacking tech just after President Trump’s travel ban – April 13, 2017
American citizens: U.S. border agents can search your iPhone – March 14, 2017
How to get past customs without surrendering your digital privacy – February 17, 2017


  1. I will add that, along with syncing to the usefulness of the cloud. Less than ideal, but a solution to one problem.

    Now…. will MDN finally say it’s okay if the burner phone is an Android?

  2. The suggested solutions would likely work for personal travel, but this was a business trip. The devices were owned by the company and contained data he needed in connection with his employment, including the aspect of his employment that required international travel. He needed the sensitive information either on his devices or accessible from his devices.

    CBP is supposed to be guarding our borders, not engaging in industrial espionage. What makes this even more disturbing is that the questioning was not related entirely to any threat he personally posed to homeland security, but to his work for Mozilla and Apple in the area of computer security. He appears to have been targeted because the Government does not like people who criticize it or make domestic surveillance more difficult.

      1. Good rhetorical. Because the corporation is a person with Constitutional guarantees and is wealthier. Because money is speech, it has a more powerful voice to assert its Constitutional rights. So the USSC should never have found a corporation to be a person.

      2. I wasn’t suggesting that corporations should have more protection than natural persons (although I would think they are less likely to be terrorists). I was pointing out that it isn’t an option to carry a burner phone or spare computer on a business trip, where vital information must be immediately accessible to the user.

        Apple doesn’t want a copy of its proprietary information sitting on a possibly insecure government computer. The border security agency certainly has no legitimate need for that data, making its seizure unreasonable even at a point of entry.

        1. “Apple doesn’t want a copy of its proprietary information sitting on a possibly insecure government computer.”

          The user doesn’t want their device on a possibly insecure government computer either. They want their device with them.
          No one should be “special”.

          This is the problem with warrantless searches. And I’m sorry, there is no border claim. Not logically anyway. You are either on one side of an infinitely thin line, or you are not.

          1. If you don’t like the rules being different along the border than in the interior, take it up with the United States Supreme Court, not with me. Again, I am not suggesting that business data should be less protected than personal data, only that it is usually possible to avoid carrying one’s personal data and usually impossible to do business without access to one’s business database

            1. I will argue with you when you shill for a corporation as somehow more entitled, over people. That said, I otherwise agreed with you and disagreed with the law.

              It is just as wrong to not have ones personal database.

  3. “to determine if they are consistent with the agency’s obligations under the U.S. Constitution and laws”

    Since when has the ACLU been concerned w/ the US Constitution?? The ACLU would abolish the Constitution if they had the choice lol

    1. This poster is uninformed. The ACLU almost invariably sides with individuals who believe their rights are being violated by the United States government, a state government, or a local government within U.S. borders. They are apolitical in choosing the cases they take. If you feel otherwise about them, then you should take a close look at your beliefs with respect to the particular right in question. For example, if you favor the Government telling people what they can or cannot do in bed (and with whom), what they can or cannot believe politically or religiously, or favor making it easier for the Government to detain people against their will, then you will hate the ACLU. Otherwise, they’re heroes.

    2. Your post is the “lol,” giblet. While you may disagree with some of the cases that the ACLU has brought against the Government, your assertion that the ACLU is anti-Constitution is utterly ridiculous.

      1. Yes. Ultimate security for the any command and control institution is for people to remain locked in their homes or office with full access by authorities.

    1. Actually, the ACLU is the most American of institutions.

      When you are confronted by the power of the state (in the context of any level of government), the ACLU stands with the ordinary citizen and your intrinsic rights to the full extent of the law.

      This country was founded upon the principle that people have intrinsic rights that were not granted by any government and that the various levels of government are supposed to honor and protect those rights. This concept is quite clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence. The Federal Constitution was passed concurrently with the Bill of Rights that amended the Constitution to include them.

      The ACLU is often cast as anti-Christian which makes them an object of derision and hatred by many Right Wing Christians who refer to it as the Anti-Christian Litigation Unit. This comes from many lawsuits where the ACLU sought to protect the separation of church and state.

      The ACLU has never opposed the right of any individual to pray in any public facility or institution but has fought the use of public schools and other activities of government as places of indoctrination or proselytizing. Students can pray and can have organized religious study as long as it is student led and participation is not coerced. Teachers can use religious texts in the context of teaching history, philosophy, or comparative religion, but are forbidden to provide religious instruction.

      The purpose of the ACLU is to protect the civil liberties of all Americans. Even people who do not agree with them.

        1. You are confusing Communism with Stalinism so, by your weak thinking, it would not be a stretch to suppose that you may also be confusing Mac OS with Windows OS.

    2. I’d argue that there is almost nothing more American (who we were meant to be idealistically) than defending individual rights against authority/majority. They even defended American white nationalists rights to free speech multiple times, despite admissions they despise them, based on principle. Im not so sure you can point to many organizations today that stand by their principles to that degreee, when it’d be easier to just do political gymnastics to argue why they shouldn’t

      1. My one personal experience with the ACLU when I was a prosecutor involved them investigating whether we had improperly fired two deputy sheriffs for belonging to the KKK. They were satisfied when I showed that the “lawmen” were trying to recruit members among their coworkers while they were on the county clock. That hardly struck me as Communist.

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.