Apple employee files complaint against U.S. Customs for asking him to unlock his corporate laptop and phone

Key Points
  • Andreas Gal, an Apple employee, was stopped at San Francisco International Airport in December, the ACLU says.
  • Gal says he was asked to unlock his cellphone and laptop, both of which are property of Apple and could have contained trade secrets.
  • He says Customs and Border Protection officers told him that he didn't have the right to talk to an attorney or his employer.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection bureau in Washington, D.C.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers stopped Andreas Gal, an Apple employee, at San Francisco International Airport in December and asked him to unlock his company-owned phone and laptop, the ACLU said on Tuesday.

Gal was threatened by officers after asking to speak to his employer and an attorney before deciding whether to comply with the search, according to the ACLU's complaint with the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Homeland Security.

The episode highlights the conflicts that arise when CBP officers use their broad powers to demand to search digital devices. In this case, Gal's phone and laptop were property of Apple and had corporate secrets stored on them.

"My phone and laptop are property of my employer and contain unreleased software and proprietary information. I've signed a non-disclosure agreement promising not to give anyone access," Gal wrote in a Medium post about the experience.

He continued: "Because I was uncertain about my legal responsibilities to my employer, I asked the agents if I could speak to my employer or an attorney before unlocking my devices. This request seemed to aggravate the customs officers."

Gal "is obligated to maintain careful possession and control of his Apple-issued development devices; to avoid the dissemination of information concerning these devices or the Apple projects to which they related; and to strictly limit access to those devices by other persons. Dr. Gal takes his obligations under these agreements very seriously," according to the ACLU complaint.

Gal was eventually allowed to leave with his Apple-owned laptop and phone, but officers revoked his Global Entry status that enables him to reduce waiting time during international travel, according to his account.

The ACLU complaint asks for an investigation into whether the incident may have violated the First and Fourth Amendments.

A CBP spokesperson declined to comment on the specific case, citing pending litigation.

"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.," a CBP representative said in a statement.

Apple declined to comment.

CBP's lawful ability to search the contents of personal electronics devices has caused several controversies in recent years. In a similar incident, in 2016, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal was detained at Los Angeles International Airport after taking a flight from Beirut, Lebanon. She declined to allow a search of the contents of her two cellphones to protect her journalistic sources. She was later released with both of her phones.

Gal was flying from Sweden, according to his post. He said that he has been a U.S. citizen for three years.

He was previously the chief technical officer at Mozilla, which makes the Firefox web browser, and he has publicly opposed mass surveillance and supported strong encryption as a technologist. He has worked at Apple since March 2018 after it bought his company, Silk Labs, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Gal said in his Medium post that CBP agents questioned him about his past work for Mozilla.

Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.

Apple is right to tap into new areas, says CNET executive editor
Apple is right to tap into new areas, says CNET executive editor