Ed Ou, a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, is currently working as a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation covering indigenous communities in North America and is a TED Senior Fellow
[I didn’t even begin to worry until later, when I was told to hand over my phones. The officer said: “Now we just need to look into your cell phone to be sure there’s no photos of you posing next to some dead body somewhere.”
I told the officer that as a journalist, I have a responsibility to not share information that could compromise my sources. This is the same ethical obligation that doctors have to their patients and lawyers have to their clients. The officer demanded my passwords and threatened that if I didn’t provide them, I could be refused entry into the country.
The American government says it can use the fact that you are at a border to take everything about your life, comb through it and store it forever. Police officers need a search warrant. Border officers have more latitude. That latitude has limits, but the officers seemed oblivious to those limits. One of them bragged, “Everything you bring through here is mine to go through and take.”
It felt like deja vu. I’ve heard that line before. It was in Crimea after Russian special forces invaded a Ukrainian military base where I was filming. They rounded up all the journalists and seized our memory cards—“for security.” We protested. They told us the same thing. “You’re in our country now, we can do whatever we want.”
I ultimately refused to turn over my passwords. They confiscated my phones anyway, read pages of my journals and photocopied my notes. I felt like I had betrayed my own consciousness. They asked which “extremists” I have been in contact with and how many people I have seen die. Later, I could see that the phones had been tampered with.
After six hours, I was told I was being denied entry. When I asked why, I was told the reasons were “classified.” I wondered if the real reasons had anything to do with the fact that I was going to cover Standing Rock.
On my way out of the interrogation room, the supervisor had one more thing to add. “You’re probably going to write about this. Well, we’re not scared of you. You can say what you want. It won’t change anything.”
Editor’s Note: The following is a comment from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection:
Due to the restrictions of the Privacy Act, Customs and Border Protection does not discuss individual travelers; however, all international travelers arriving to the U.S. are subject to CBP inspection.
This inspection may include electronic devices such as computers, disks, drives, tapes, mobile phones and other communication devices, cameras, music and other media players and any other electronic or digital device.
Keeping America safe and enforcing our nation’s laws in an increasingly digital world depends on our ability to lawfully examine all materials entering the U.S. In Fiscal Year 2015, U.S. Customs and Border Protection processed more than 383 million U.S. arrivals and conducted 4,764 inspections of electronic media, including 4,444 cell phone inspections. This equates to .0012 percent of travelers undergoing an inspection of electronic media. Fiscal Year 2016 numbers are not available just yet.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection realizes the importance of international travel to the U.S. economy and we strive to process arriving travelers as efficiently and securely as possible while ensuring compliance with laws and regulations governing the international arrival process.]
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