Earlier this month Customs and Border Protection seized the iPhone of an active duty American soldier as they were transferring through a U.S. airport as part of their directed orders. After questioning, the CBP sent the iPhone to a lab for forensic analysis, according to the service member and a CBP document obtained by Motherboard. The soldier, an American citizen born in Iran, told Motherboard they believe the questioning and seizure was due to their Iranian heritage.
The news comes amid increased U.S. and Iran tensions. A leaked CBP memo published by CNN Thursday shows the agency directed border officers to question travelers of Iranian descent, including American citizens, in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s killing of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani.
“I feel like my story needs to get out in case it could help someone else in the future,” the soldier told Motherboard. Motherboard granted the soldier anonymity because they feared repercussions from speaking out as an active duty soldier.
The soldier provided Motherboard with a copy of the detention notice and custody receipt for detained property from CBP. It said CBP seized an iPhone on January 25th. The soldier also provided Motherboard with their military identification, their travel itinerary, an email CBP sent to them about the phone seizure, and other documents.
Do you know anything else about electronics being seized at the border? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on firstname.lastname@example.org, or email email@example.com.
The service member said that after landing at the airport, they were selected for secondary screening. At the screening, the service member said they provided the border agent with their passport, military orders, and ID, and mentioned that they were active duty Army flying on military orders. According to the soldier, the agent then asked a series of questions, and said that the service member’s phone number—which they had not provided to the agent—was “popping” up on multiple different travelers that had been flying recently.
The agent then checked the service member’s bags, found nothing suspicious, but asked for the soldier’s phone.
“I give the agent my phone and pin, and he said he would take the phone back to the ‘IT guy’ and have me on my way. He also has me place the phone on airplane mode,” the soldier said.
After around 20 minutes, the agent came back and said he had “good news and bad news,” according to the Army member. The agent said they were free to go, but they would not be getting the phone back anytime soon.
“I grab my bags and depart without making a scene as I was afraid of being detained any longer.”
“When I question him on this, he states that since my phone was updated to the latest version of iOS, the ‘IT guy’ [wasn’t] able to do anything and my phone would be sealed and prepared to be sent overnight to a lab for analysis,” the Army member told Motherboard.
“I vent my frustration, and ask if I would be allowed to have my phone back to get information off of it, which he answers no to. I grab my bags and depart without making a scene as I was afraid of being detained any longer,” they added. The soldier and their commander then left to catch their connecting flight, the service member said.
For the past several days, through multiple phone calls, voicemails, and other communication, the Army member said they had been trying to get more information from CBP about how to get their phone back.
The service member believes they were stopped because of their Iranian background.
“I was originally born in Iran,” the soldier said, adding that they were later granted asylum in the U.S., joined the Army, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Their passport says they were born in Iran; the Army member said they assume this is why they were selected for secondary screening.
The memo obtained and verified by CNN, called “Iranian Supreme Leader Vows Forceful Revenge after US Kills Maj. General Qasem Suleimani in Baghdad—Threat Alert High,” says that anyone born in Iran, Lebanon, or the Palestinian territories between 1961 and 2001 should be vetted. CBP previously denied there was any directive to question people based on the border based on their ethnicity, despite border agents stopping dozens of American citizens of Iranian descent at a border, CNN added.
“I give the agent my phone and pin, and he said he would take the phone back to the ‘IT guy’ and have me on my way.”
“My story isn’t as serious as some others who were detained at [borders] or sent back home while trying to enter the country,” the Army member added. But they believed the only reason they weren’t detained longer was due to their active military status, they said.
A CBP spokesperson declined to comment on the specific incident, but said in a statement, “All travelers crossing the United States border are subject to CBP inspection. On rare occasions, CBP officers may search a traveler’s mobile phone, computer, camera and other electronic devices during the inspection process. These searches have resulted in evidence helpful in combating terrorist activity, child pornography, drug smuggling, human smuggling, bulk cash smuggling, human trafficking, export control violations, intellectual property rights violations and visa fraud.”
“CBP has established strict guidelines to ensure that these searches are exercised judiciously, responsibly and consistent with the public trust. CBP expects its employees to conduct their duties in a professional manner and to treat all members of the public with dignity and respect,” the statement added. “CBP’s ability to lawfully inspect electronic devices crossing the border is integral to keeping America safe in an increasingly digital world.”
Ben Makuch contributed reporting to this piece.
Subscribe to our cybersecurity podcast, CYBER.