U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky has device taken and searched upon arrival in U.S.

Incident Details

Date of Incident
December 23, 2018

Border Stop

Border Point
United Kingdom
Target Nationality
US Citizenship Status of Target
U.S. non-resident
Denied Entry?
Stopped Previously?
Asked for device access?
Asked intrusive questions about work?
Equipment Seized
Search Warrant Obtained
Courtesy of Saeed Taji Farouky
— Courtesy of Saeed Taji Farouky
December 23, 2018

While flying from the United Kingdom into the United States on Dec. 23, 2018, filmmaker and director Saeed Taji Farouky was stopped by border authorities, who questioned him about his work and family and asked him to unlock his cellphone.

Farouky, who is based in the UK, had obtained a visa for this trip, and was checking in at the airport. At the check-in counter, Farouky heard the employee who had his paperwork tell another employee, “I’ve got someone here relating to those two words that I can’t say.”

“I was like, what are those two words?” Farouky said. “Why would you say that in front of me?”

Whatever those two words were, Farouky was pulled aside for an interview by the Department of Homeland Security. He said the interview didn’t surprise him. While securing his visa for the trip, an embassy representative told him he might be interviewed again while traveling. Plus, he said, he is used to it.

“This time,” Farouky said, “This DHS guy showed up and questioned me for 10 minutes. There were some questions about my work, and also strange questions about whether I had family in the United States—he wanted to know if they were ‘OK,’ or if they had medical issues. When I mentioned living in Morocco in the past, he kept bringing up this story in which two Scandinavian hikers were killed by an ISIS affiliate. The story is horrifying, but he kept bringing it up over and over. It felt like maybe he was phishing to see my reaction.”

After he was told by DHS that he was good to go, Farouky said his luggage was given an additional swab to test for explosives, and then he boarded his flight to Florida. But upon landing, he said he was quickly pulled aside again.

“I sat there for a long time while someone asked me questions, and it focused on my travel history. He brought up Syria a lot, which I visited in 2009 before the United States’ cutoff date to visit the country.”

Farouky said a border agent then asked for his phone, and requested him to unlock it. The border officials did not ask him for his passcode.

“I didn’t know what my rights were,” Farouky said. “I asked, ‘What if I am not comfortable with that?’ And they said the only other option was sending my phone to a private company, which meant I wouldn’t get it back for weeks.”

Border agents cannot force travelers to unlock their phones or laptops, but they can ask them to do so and escalate the situation. If travelers refuse, officials can seize the devices and copy the data.

Farouky said he was worried about his contacts, both personal and professional. “If they harvested all of the names and numbers, that’s everyone I have ever interviewed, so my sources could be put in some sort of database. But I didn’t feel like I had a choice.”

He said he felt intensely uncomfortable, but unlocked his phone and gave it to the officials. Farouky said they told him they were just looking for evidence of illegal activity. The border agents then took his phone into another room, returning it after about five minutes, Farouky said. When it was returned, it was on airplane mode.

A 2018 Customs and Border Protection directive requires officials to ensure that prior to a search, devices are not connected to the internet, so that searches only involve content that is stored locally on the device.

Farouky also noted that at no point was he offered a piece of paper detailing his rights in the situation. He also said that he was concerned that pushing back would only spike the authorities’ interest in his devices and work.

“I certainly didn’t want them looking at my laptop. I’m not even doing hardcore investigative work,” he said.

DHS did not respond to a request for comment.

Farouky emphasized that this kind of incident is not uncommon for him, and that he has been questioned by authorities while traveling and asked to unlock his devices at other times. He said in a Tel Aviv airport around 2009, Israeli authorities asked him to unlock his phone and he refused. And a few years ago in New York, he was interrogated in what he called a much ruder and longer fashion. There, his phone was taken but not unlocked.

“I don’t have any doubt that this is because I am a Muslim, a Palestinian, and a journalist. It really pissed me off intellectually,” Farouky said.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].