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Border Crossings, Government Harassment, And How To Protect Yourself

Above Photo: DC via Unsplash.

The Austin Anarchist Black Cross (ABC) looks at political repression and harassment at the border and how to best approach crossings.

Austin, Texas – Last weekend, an activist from Austin was detained at the Austin airport by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) upon reentry to the U.S. after traveling abroad. They were held for about 3 hours and questioned about their political beliefs and associations and their protest activities. CBP also searched their phone and likely copied the entire contents of the phone for later analysis.

We are releasing this statement to shed light on this aspect of government surveillance, harassment, and repression, and to provide important lessons for other activists to better protect themselves, their loved ones, and their communities in the future. CBP is a large but seldom discussed federal law enforcement agency with broad powers at the border and ports of entry, including all international airports. The more notorious Border Patrol is a division within CBP, whereas ICE is a separate agency.

The Austin activist who was detained was initially directed to a side area for secondary screening when their passport triggered an alert at passport control. Once in secondary screening, CBP did not allow them to use their phone to communicate with anyone. CBP began by searching the person’s luggage and asking generic questions about drugs and other contraband. After finding souvenirs and other items of a left-wing political nature, including items that had antifascist and circle A logos, the questioning took a more political turn. CBP asked if they were a “member of antifa” and if they knew “members of antifa” or where such people meet. CBP asked their opinions about the government and police, whether and why they had been involved in protests, and other questions about their political beliefs.

During this detention, CBP consistently lied about what legal rights they have and used a variety of intimidation and manipulation tactics to coax and coerce compliance. CBP officers read their personal journals, viewed intimate photos, and plowed callously through the most private contents of their life. To call it a crass invasion of privacy would be an understatement. The whole ordeal was deeply frightening, unsettling and traumatizing. This person has been connected with legal support, resources to help re-secure their digital life, and community support.

Unfortunately, this type of government activity is as unexceptional as it is disturbing. In the context of political repression and counterinsurgency, information gathering activity like this is not just directed at specific discreet criminal investigations. It is also geared toward intimidation, intelligence gathering, social mapping communities, and informing larger campaigns of neutralization (whether through cooptation, management, or violence).

In light of this, the question about whether a particular person does or does not have “something to hide,” misses the point entirely. Simply being part of a movement or community in resistance and radical opposition to the status quo means you have everything to hide. Therefore, practicing good information and digital security is an act of care for yourself and everyone in your life.

While many resources exist to advise people about their rights and how to deal with police investigations and interactions inside the U.S. (for example, these excellent guides from It’s Going Down, CrimethInc, and The Center for Constitutional Rights), few of these resources address the issue of border crossings in much detail. Towards this goal, we offer the following guide to understanding your limited legal rights when crossing the border into the United States, and some recommendations for how you can protect yourself, your loved ones, and your entire movement and community when interacting with these borders and their government enforcers.

For a much more comprehensive discussion of digital security at the border, we recommend this report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and their Surveillance Self-Defense resources, as well as the Civil Liberties Defense Center’s Digital Security resource page.

Your Limited Rights At The Border

It has become common knowledge that our legal rights are severely curtailed at border crossings, but it’s important to understand what rights you still have, and what rights you don’t.

At the very least, all entrants are subject to screening and must answer questions and provide documentation sufficient to prove your citizenship or immigration status.

If you are a US citizen:

  • You must be admitted into the United States. This doesn’t mean that they can’t detain you and delay your entry, but ultimately they must let you enter. Everything we’ve read suggests that most detentions only last several hours, and up to a day at most. (There are some exceptions when they are questioning the person’s citizenship status.)
  • You have the right to remain silent and the right to have a lawyer present during questioning. CBP will often try to convince you that you don’t have these rights or intimidate you into giving them up. These are just pig games. Insist on having a lawyer present. Refuse to answer questions. Be stubborn and confident. (It’s often common to answer general inquiries at primary screening, but as soon as you are sent to secondary screening or get the sense that questioning has progressed beyond general inquiries, it’s best to stfu.)
  • CBP can search your vehicle (if driving), luggage, and physical belongings. This is pretty obvious.
  • CBP can search your phone, computer, and other digital devices. This can include directly looking through the contents of the device, downloading certain files, or making a digital copy of the complete contents of the device. Recent reporting has explored the full extent of CBP mass data collection and courts are divided on what level of searching is permissible without a warrant. But if you consent to a search by unlocking your phone, you’ve waived any legal rights to privacy you might have.
  • You can refuse to unlock your digital device, or refuse to give your social media information, and you must still be granted entry. However, if you don’t unlock your device, CBP can seize it. They are supposed to return the device within 5 days, but that doesn’t always happen and 5 days might as well be forever.

If you are a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR, or Green Card holder) you must usually be granted entry to the U.S. as well, but there are some exceptions, like if you were out of the U.S. for a year or more.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, your rights are even more curtailed:

  • You do not have to answer questions, but refusing to do so will likely result in being denied entry (unless you are an LPR).
  • You do not have a right to a lawyer, unless questioning turns to subjects unrelated to your immigration status and admissibility to the U.S.
  • CBP can search your vehicle (if driving), luggage, and physical belongings.
  • CBP can search your phone, computer, and other digital devices. Refusing to unlock or provide access to your devices, or refusing to provide social media information, can result in denial of entry.
  • If you are refused entry, but you fear persecution or torture if sent back to the country you came from, you may ask for asylum from the officer who is detaining or refusing you.

Preparing For Border Crossings Ahead Of Time

The moments before you reach a border crossing or checkpoint are the wrong time to start thinking about your information and digital security. Maybe you can take some hasty last minute precautions, but maybe it’s too late. For example, it’s not uncommon for CBP officers to be waiting for people in the jetway, so anything you plan to do better be done before you get off the plane.

Ideally, planning your safe passage through the border will begin as soon as you start thinking about taking a trip. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say.

  • Don’t bring your regular devices. Get a second phone, computer, tablet, whatever. Sadly, the world is saturated with digital devices now, so getting a used or refurbished one is relatively cheap, and may be nearly as good as your primary device (but whatever limitations it has are surely preferrable to handing your entire primary device over to the feds). Friends might have an old device you can borrow so ask around. Make sure the device has been wiped and reset completely (god forbid you get busted for someone else’s digital misadventures!). Leave your primary device at home. Its good to have something to look forward to on your return anyway.
  • Minimize what information and data is on the devices. Load only the information that you need for your trip on your travel device. You don’t need every contact or every app. At the end of your trip, log out of any social media or email accounts and delete the apps. Clear your browser history. Delete your text messages (the ones that haven’t already automatically disappeared that is!) and uninstall Signal and similar apps. Photos and files can be uploaded to a cloud-based service and removed from the local disk (but think about the risks of various cloud-based storage options as well–digital security is all about tradeoffs and balancing). Be aware that deleted files may still leave copies that can be recovered by forensic scans of your device (assuming they can bypass the encryption). Hell, if you’ve backed up everything you need to the cloud, just do a full factory reset of the device and throw it in river as you walk over the bridge to the port of entry! (Probably not actually advisable to throw devices into bodies of water, both for the water’s sake, and your own, since the border cops are watching with a suspicious eye).
  • Secure your devices as much as possible. Full disk encryption is standard on iOS and Android devices now, but you still need a secure password (numbers and letters, the more the better). Drawing patterns and biometric shit like thumbprints and facial recognition is not secure when your phone might get seized by the pigs. Full disk encryption gets more complicated when it comes to laptops, but a number of guides are available online. To ensure that none of your data is unencrypted while in use during your crossing, power your device all the way off at least 5 minutes before reaching the border.
  • Avoid carrying physical items that will raise suspicions. All that really cool anarchist memorabilia you picked up at the social center/squat/conference? It’s going to raise some–er–red flags with CBP. Spend a few bucks to pack it up and mail it to yourself.
  • Notify people to call a lawyer if you don’t check in. Have a plan set up, same as you would going to a demo. Text someone as soon as you land–but still on the plane–so they know when to expect to hear from you, and what to do if they don’t hear from you. They could contact a lawyer for you, call CBP themselves to ask about your whereabouts, alert your friends and comrades about the situation, and more.

When You’re Detained

Detention at the border is especially insidious because you are likely already in a situation of heightened vulnerability. You are probably some degree of exhausted, fatigued, dehydrated, and disoriented from your travels. You are eager to be done traveling and be at your destination. Someone is likely awaiting your arrival. If you were on a long flight, you may have already been incommunicado for many hours before being held incommunicado again in CBP detention. These are all enemies of your good judgment and allies to the CBP gestapo mind games that are to follow.

This section, and especially the last three points, is written primarily for people who are U.S. citizens and guaranteed entry to the United States. Non-citizens will likely have many other considerations that we could not even begin to adequately address here. Particularly for non-citizens, we recommend seeking legal advice about your particular situation.

  • Slow down, don’t panic, and settle in for the ride. There is no easy shortcut; the only way is through. The sooner you come to terms with that, the better position you’ll be in. They want you to feel rush and urgency, because those feelings can produce compliance.
  • Fight the isolation, fear, and fatigue. Think about the people who love and care about you and have your back. Remember that someone knows to start looking for you and to mobilize help if you don’t check in. Remember that you have survived many difficult, scary, and dangerous things before and that you can survive this.
  • Don’t lie. Lying to federal agents can get you prison time, even when you have done nothing else illegal. It’s a common trap, so don’t fall in it. But how do you avoid giving incriminating answers without lying? By not saying anything!
  • Don’t talk. Say you are going to remain silent. Say you want a lawyer. Say nothing else.
  • Be insistent. They will tell you it doesn’t work like that at the border, that you can’t remain silent, that you don’t get a lawyer. They are full of shit. Repeat that you are going to remain silent. Repeat that you want a lawyer. They will tell you it’s faster if you just comply, that you’ll only be held longer for remaining silent. They are still full of shit. Repeat that you are going to remain silent. Repeat that you want a lawyer. Just keep repeating it.
  • Be bored. Don’t take too much interest in what they say, since most of it probably isn’t true. Twiddle your thumbs. Roll your eyes. Stare at the wall. Count the sheep in your head.

Afterward You’re Released

So you made it back into the U.S. after being detained at the border. Our sincerest condolences.

  • Notify your people. Start with the people closest to you; the ones you actively organize with; people who might be at greatest risk of any data breaches; people you were specifically questioned about. Expand out from there.
  • Alert your community and movement by putting out some type of public statement. It’s important for people to know about the type of surveillance and harassment that is going on. Public statements (like this one!) are also helpful for reminding people of security risks and corresponding precautions they should take.
  • Replace your device (and sim card). If your device was ever outside of your direct sight or ever plugged into to anything by CBP (almost certain), it is compromised. There is no way to know if or how it might have been tampered with. You can’t undo what they’ve already seized or looked at, but you can make sure that they can’t keep looking at future content going to or from your device. So just replace it. Crowd fund it. Get a used version. Get a slightly older model. Max out your credit line. Whatever you need to do.
  • Re-secure your accounts. At a minimum, any email, social media, or other account that was logged in or had login information on the device needs the passwords changed. Any passwords that were stored in your device or otherwise accessed by CBP need to be changed on every account they were used on. Depending on your specific risk profile, you might consider abandoning certain accounts (after you re-secure them).
  • Assess other risks. What might be at risk if additional investigation occurs? Are there people that you need to specifically warn and teach what to do in case of door knocks? Is there unnecessary contraband that might be found if your house is subsequently searched?
  • Lawyer up as appropriate. A legal consult is probably a good idea to assess your legal exposure. Better to have a lawyer up to speed and not need them.
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