Thirteen is an unlucky number, some say. I was making my way for my twelfth visit, also counting one overnight transit, to the United States.
It’s the type of story you always hope never turns out to be about yourself. In July, I was on my way to the twelfth FreedomFest in Las Vegas, and yes, it is by a coincidence also my twelfth visit to the American union; all my visits to the U.S. have not been FreedomFest occasions.
Perhaps 12 is my unlucky number?
I flew in to Detroit Metropolitan Airport with my international flight. I had heard stories about seizures and searches of electronic devices. That was why I had planned not to bring my ordinary laptop, only a reserve/backup device.
I came to the immigration checkpoint. The standard procedure with questioning started. I answered the questions as best I could. I told the officer my purpose was a conference, and upon followup I said it was the FreedomFest in Las Vegas. Apparently, the officer was so interested in the conference she googled it. Against the State: An ... Best Price: $2.11 Buy New $8.56 (as of 03:10 EST - Details)
I don’t know what the reason for it was. Was it one of my answers that provoked them? Was it the fact that I was a single male traveler? Was it my information about going to a conference? I don’t know. No matter the cause, I was taken to a room for extended interview/interrogation.
There were several subjects of extended checks in this room.
I was ordered early on to get my checked bag.
They turned the pages of my physical papers.
I don’t know what it was that triggered it. Could it have been my misunderstanding of a question, interpreted by the officer as ill intent? Could I have hesitated for a few seconds too long in answering a question, interpreted by the officer as my having something to hide? Was it that I didn’t have any conference, hotel, or return flight documentation on me? Was it that I was claiming to go to a (suspect) freedom conference?
No matter the cause, I was requested/ordered to put my cell phone on and in flight mode and to enter the password.
They were two officers now. I was given an informational form about seizures of electronic devices. I could observe that an officer was scanning my cell phone with another cell phone. When the officer did so, she had opened my text messages. Parts of my text message threads were being scanned.
The officer searching my phone finished her search of my phone by telling the other officer she didn’t find anything.
When I was let go from the intrusive questioning and searching, I asked about the photographing of my phone. I was told it was just translating. When checking my phone later on, several apps I never use had apparently been opened.
Later, when I got home I filed a complaint/inquiry. To be exact, this was on July 31. Specifically, in this inquiry, I asked for the specific reason for my phone search. Normal processing time is stated to be 10-15 working days. While high season may cause processing time to be longer, I still haven’t heard anything, and more than 3-4 times that stated normal processing time has now passed.
One of the the immigration officers nagged about the place I was staying, which I had given exact details of both in my ESTA application and when filling out information via the airline. Apparently, it was a problem that I didn’t remember the street number exactly – or was unsure about the zip code. He had also been nagging about my return flight, which was just a week later. Checking my passport, I had been granted entry for 90 days.
What Can Be Said About It?
Several travelers, also known as entry candidates, were in the same room at the same time. In the case they claim these extended checks are between the officers and the traveler, this is certainly not so.
About eight years ago, I was subject to a relative thorough customs check when returning home to Norway, but those customs officers at least let my physical papers – and electronic devices for that matter – in peace. Not so with the CBP officers this July day at the Detroit airport. My physical papers were certainly not left alone.
The officer claimed the scanning of my phone was “just” translating. If the claim was correct, it was still prying – and bad enough.
The border thugs were prying in my personal communication. Not only in good old physical papers, but also going through my cell phone. Back in the days when people didn’t bring their “entire lives” with them when traveling, one could at least make a somewhat reasonable argument that checking travelers’ papers, while intrusive, still was limited. Today it is not. It particularly harms those who are not prepared for this kind of intrusion. Those who have intentions of committing serious crimes, such as terrorism, will know how to avoid it.
The phone-prying officer said she didn’t find anything. Find anything what? Were they looking for something in particular? Or were they randomly looking for something anything?
To my knowledge, they had no claim that there was probable cause I had committed a crime. There was, however, probable cause I wanted to enter the country.
The officer nagged about how long I was staying. This is one of their standard questions. But no matter how much they nag about this, they always put the same length of the permitted stay in the passport, 90 days. Aren’t these bureaucrats wonderful?
This is how the so-called “land of the free” treats its visitors. Hey, maybe I should consider myself lucky not having the old crap of a laptop I had brought along searched.
What Can Be Done?
Certainly it can be argued that a country needs to protect itself against terrorism and illegal immigration. Illegal immigration is not something the United States only get by people walking across the Mexican-American border. It also happens through people overstaying their visas or ESTAs.
Especially since September of 2001, the United States government has been scared of letting the wrong people into the country. However, this searching of electronic devices at the border does also happen to American citizens.
First of all, if the U.S. Customs and Border Protection actually cares about privacy, the very least they could do is stop interviewing/interrogating people in a room where there are other entry candidates. And they could also give some form of response if questions are asked in writing after the incident.
These measures of searching electronic devices may – in theory at least – prevent some crime or other unwanted events from happening, such as terrorism, or, much less serious, someone getting a job without the proper visa/permit.
A society can get rid of all sorts of crimes, misdemeanors, and unwanted behavior. A way of doing this is introducing total surveillance. There may be some issues with capacity and corruption among the watchmen, but in theory it is at least possible. The concept of pre-crime of Minority Report comes to mind. Do we really want such a society?
People with terrorist intentions certainly know how to get into those United States without compromising information being found on their persons upon entry. Maybe, perhaps, a very few who are not accustomed enough might get caught. Overall, however, this custom of prying in travelers’ personal electronic devices is something that as a general rule hits the innocent. Those United States should know very well that fits very poorly with the American tradition of freedom.
Could this prying prevent people from illegally traveling to the United States to work? I guess it could. However, the correct way to deal with this for of activity is to deal with it when it happens. It is not worthy of a free society to have this kind of pre-emptive searching. It is a constitutional right when in the United States. It is an important aspect of American liberty. It should also apply at the border.
The authorization for these searches should be abolished. The evidence it is good for anything but officers’ time going by – and possibly their entertainment – is dubious at best, otherwise hardly existent, or rather non-existent.
Also, if those United States put an end to aggressive foreign policy, the need to be worried about terrorist events will likely go down, as there will be less motivation to commit acts of vengeance against the United States.