Can US Customs Search Your Phone? CBP Detaining and Testing Privacy at the Austin Bergstrom Airport

Austinite Detained for Hours, Questioned, and Digitally Ransacked by ABIA Security Agents


Austin airport security has been becoming more and more intrusive, but according to a recent article in The Intercept, summer just got a lot hotter at our local airport. In May, journalist and Austin native Seth Harp was in the line at the Austin airport, returning from a reporting trip to Mexico City. He was pulled from the line by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), questioned, and detained for four hours. During that time, officers read every page of his personal journal, pored through everything on his phone and laptop, and searched his luggage, all without a warrant. When Harp attempted to call a lawyer, officers took his phone.

As a Central Texas law firm that often helps clients with misunderstandings with Austin airport security, we find this well-documented incident disturbing on multiple levels. CBP is operating in a legal gray area, unconstrained by the normal rules that protect your freedom and privacy and mandate things like warrants, your Miranda rights, and a call to a lawyer. This has been true for years, but according to the Intercept article, CBP’s warrantless device searches have gone up about 300 percent since Donald Trump was elected, so the change appears to be part of a larger-scale border security emphasis.

Harp writes that agents requested his passwords to check for child pornography, terrorist activity, and evidence of other wrongdoing. He considered not surrendering the passwords to his phone and laptop, but Austin airport security agents told him they would simply confiscate his devices and use “external equipment” to try to crack, copy, and analyze them. Under that threat, and without any legal recourse, Harp complied. The agent then proceeded to spend three hours inspecting Harp’s emails, texts, encrypted messages, and personal photos. They often took his devices out of his view, during which time they could have copied files and implanted keyloggers and tracking software. They documented his laptop serial number, and his phone’s IMEI number, which Homeland Security can use to track his location.

Austin Airport Security Tips

If you’re a frequent traveler, especially internationally, you should be aware that CBP and Austin airport security are not currently subject to some of the legal restrictions that we assume are protecting our daily lives as U.S. citizens. Until the court system rules on the special case of Americans reentering the country, this will continue to be the case.

What are some things to ensure you don’t end up afoul of ABIA security?

            1. Be helpful and polite, even if slighted. It does sound like Harp and the first CBP agent didn’t like each other. We’re sure Harp would’ve played that first encounter much differently if he had to do it again.

            2. Keep it bland. Harp’s first and biggest mistake was refusing to tell CBP what his story was about. He joked that it was about guacamole. If for some reason you don’t want to disclose details about your travels, use your best judgment and try to find a truthful but uninteresting way to summarize the trip.

            3. Be honest. You certainly don’t want to say you were traveling for pleasure when you were, say, traveling for work. A clear lie will only get you more suspicion.

            4. Keep your nose clean. Obviously, avoid illegal activity and contraband.

            5. Don’t be different. If you have any odd items in your luggage, consider shipping them home instead of taking them through Austin airport security. Wear simple, comfortable clothes and an unremarkable hairstyle.

            6. Leave your weapons at home! A lot of Austinites forget, but don’t bring a handgun to the airport, ever.

            7. Keep a good Austin criminal attorney‘s contact information in your phone, just in case.

We’re aware that these tips do sound oddly like advice you would give to someone traveling in a fascist state. And that in itself is quite disturbing.

Is Austin Airport Security Straight out of Orwell’s 1984?

Is CBP technically able to stop an American citizen from entering the country? No, although Harp was told they could.

Would this airport security episode have been harder for Harp if he’d been a green card holder or had difficulty with the English language? We assume so.

Is Austin airport security just like that of George Orwell’s famous police state novel 1984? No.

But as we move more and more of our personal lives into digital form, a privacy invasion like this, with no citizen or impartial oversight, is a foreboding thing indeed.

If you’ve been detained at the Austin airport or you need a good criminal defense lawyer, contact the Law Firm of James Gill. We’re here to help, even if you just want a no-obligation consultation about the risks of your international travel.