The guidebooks and selfie-sticks arrive as Rouhani’s Iran declares itself open to all

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE GUARDIAN NEWSPAPER)

The guidebooks and selfie-sticks arrive as Rouhani’s Iran declares itself open to all

With visitor numbers rising and hotel chains circling, Iran is reinventing itself – but the change is too fast for some
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan.
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan. Photograph: James Strachan/Getty/Robert Harding World Imagery

Standing in the blue-tiled shadows of one of Iran’s greatest mosques, armed with a dish of sesame caramel snacks, Mohammed Reza Zamani is a cleric on a mission to repair the country’s image in the west, one tourist at a time.

“Free Friendly Talks” a billboard announces in English, at the entrance to a historic religious seminary-turned-museum, in the central city of Isfahan, a former imperial capital so beautiful that even today Iranians describe the city as “half the world”.

Tourism brings both money and a more positive international image for Iran, says Zamani, 36, a theology student, who is keen to ensure that visitors who might once have been alarmed by his clerical turban and robes feel welcome in his city.

“I think the moment they set foot in Iran [foreigners] find it totally different from what they expect, and their minds are changed by the people when visitors talk to us,” he said, as he took a short break between explaining marriage and circumcision traditions to a group of Italians and discussing millenarian religious beliefs with a man from the Netherlands.

Iran’s reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, staked his government and reputation on opening Iran to the world, sealing a nuclear deal that ended sanctions and courting foreign investment in its wake.

Rouhani was re-elected for a second term in a landslide victory last weekend, a sweeping endorsement of his policy from the Iranian people. And for many Iranians the growing flood of foreigners armed with guidebooks and selfie sticks is one of the most visible signs of change and re-engagement.

“Isfahan lives by tourists,” said Masood Mohamedian, a former lorry driver who this year gambled all his savings on opening a small cafe serving traditional snacks just off the main square. “I am 100% happy with Rouhani as president.”

Tourism to Iran might seem like a hard sell. The initial problem is the country’s reputation, tied up inextricably for many in the west with dramatic television images of the US embassy hostage crisis from 1979-81, and the fatwa issued in 1989 against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. More recently, the crackdown that followed disputed 2009 elections, and arrests of figures such as Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, have done little to soften that image. And the country’s conservative religious and social rules, which visitors must observe along with citizens, might deter some westerners.

There is little public nightlife, no alcohol, men and women cannot kiss or embrace in public, and women in particular must observe a relatively strict dress code, wearing a headscarf and covering their arms and legs. But tens of thousands of people have decided that Iran’s attractions far outweigh those constraints. And Iran has tried to encourage them by easing restrictions on travel.

Europeans from countries including France, Italy and Germany, who account for the majority of western tourists, can now get visas on arrival in Tehran, and at the main sites they mingle with sightseers from China, Japan and elsewhere.

“When the sanctions were lifted, I decided to come as soon as possible,” said Simonetta Marfoglia, an Italian tourist who was halfway through a two-week trip. “I had read a lot of Iranian poetry, and I am very interested in the history of the region. I am really very happy to be visiting: the people are wonderful, there is great hospitality, and it’s very friendly.”

Mohammed Reza Zamani (standing, centre right) with an Italian group in Isfahan.
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Mohammed Reza Zamani (standing, centre right) with an Italian group in Isfahan. Photograph: Emma Graham-Harrison for the Observer

The country boasts an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage, from the ruins of ancient Persepolis to Isfahan and other historic cities, such as Kashan, Tabriz and Shiraz.

Food-lovers can feast on dishes from a sophisticated cuisine that is winning increasing recognition in the west, with dishes such as fesenjan, a rich, tart and sweet chicken stew thick with walnuts and pomegranate molasses.

There are also bazaars packed with carpets and handicrafts for shoppers, a thriving contemporary arts scene and spectacular natural beauty ranging from beaches to stark deserts and snow-capped mountains. .

Together these factors have fuelled a dramatic rise in western tourists to Iran, although the majority of its two million visitors are still religious pilgrims visiting its major shrines.

Isfahan, the jewel in Iran’s heritage crown and more a destination for tourists than pilgrims, counted just over 5,000 visitors a month in 2013, when Rouhani came to power. By spring 2017 that number had risen to 85,000 in a single month, the newspaper Isfahan Today reported.

The surge in visitors has been so dramatic that some nights in high season every single hotel room in the city is taken, according to the receptionist at the newly built Zenderood Hotel.

Foreign hotel chains are eyeing the market enthusiastically, particularly since some of the biggest American players are still in effect barred. US sanctions have stayed in place after the nuclear-linked bans were lifted, leaving the field clear for European and other groups. Dubai-based Rotana Hotels is the latest firm to unveil plans for a new hotel in Isfahan, following the likes of the French chain Accor.

Spanish heritage hotel company Paradores is also looking at opportunities in the country, whose famous hotels include a former caravanserai that housed traders bringing lucrative goods to market in the 16th century.

The biggest challenge to Iran’s goal of increasing tourist numbers tenfold within the decade may be the pace of change they represent, in a country where Rouhani’s conservative rival still managed to garner 16 million votes in the election.

“I am unhappy about their cultural impact, because of their customs,” grumbled Mohammed Paknahad, a shopkeeper in Isfahan’s bazaar, who said tourists rarely bought his handicrafts. “Some of the women don’t cover their bodies properly.”

The Vatican’s Swiss Guard Just Added 40 New Members

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF TIME.COM AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Pope Francis Delivers First 'Urbi Et Orbi' Blessing During Easter Mass In St. Peter's Square
Swiss guards perform ceremonial duties during Holy Easter Mass held by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s square on March 31, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

The Vatican’s Swiss Guard Just Added 40 New Members

2:55 PM ET

(VATICAN CITY) — The world’s oldest standing army has 40 new members after a Vatican Swiss Guard swearing-in ceremony.

Each man took a loyalty oath Saturday evening in a ritual-rich ceremony in the St. Damaso courtyard of the Apostolic Palace. The May 6 date commemorates the day in 1527 when 147 guardsmen died while protecting Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome.

Earlier Saturday, Pope Francis told the Guards they’re called to “another sacrifice no less arduous” — serving the power of faith.

The recruits, who enroll for at least two years, must be single, upstanding Swiss Catholic males younger than 30.

Wearing blue-and-gold uniforms and holding halberds — spear-like weapons — they are a tourist delight while standing guard at Vatican ceremonies. Their main duty is to protect the pope.

Qatar Invests in Tunisian Tourism Sector

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Qatar Invests in Tunisian Tourism Sector

Qatar will establish a number of tourism projects in Tunisia, some of which are under construction, including Qatari Diar’s $80 million desert resort project in Tozeur that is scheduled for inauguration in 2018.

Several tourism projects in Tunisia have Qatari investors, including a mega project that is valued at $300 million and which will see a resort built over 15 hectares in Gammarth, north of the Tunisian capital.

Tunisia has welcomed 5.7 million tourists in 2016 and is expected to see more than 6.5 million tourists this year, the ministry added.

Selma Elloumi Rekik, the minister of tourism and handicrafts, announced that Tunisia is preparing a two-day investment forum on October 19 to urge investments in the tourism sector and create the conditions for the revival of the industry.

To promote this event, Elloumi visited a number of Arabian Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Oman and Jordan, urging businessmen to visit Tunisia and invest in the promising tourism sector.

The minister added that Tunisia is working on a new strategy to attract tourists and lure Arabian Gulf investments.

Qatar Development Fund is considering an estimated 250 million dollars to fund some public projects in Tunisia.

Tunisian Finance Minister Lamia Zribi announced that Tunisia will receive up to one billion dollars as funding for the state budget.

Huge Iceberg Towers Over Canadian Town In Iceberg Alley

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

Mountain bikers stop to look at icebergs drifting off the coast of Ferryland, Newfoundland, on Tuesday.

Story highlights

  • A large iceberg is grounded off Canada’s East coast
  • Tourists are flocking to the town of Ferryland to get pictures of the iceberg

(CNN)Canada’s “Iceberg Alley” is living up to its name this spring, and tourists are flocking to the town of Ferryland to see the behemoth that has grounded just off shore.

The iceberg towers over the picturesque town, which is about an hour south of St. John’s on the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Canadian Ice Service classified it as “large,” which means it has a height of 151-240 feet and is between 401 and 670 feet long.
Kaelam Power went mountain biking along the coast on Tuesday and paused to take pictures of the iceberg.
“It’s quite powerful to see,” he said. “You hear the waves crashing against the water line. From time to time, you may hear a cracking or banging sound.
Photographer Jody Martin braved the crowds on Easter Sunday to see the iceberg.
“It was a beautiful day and a lot of happy faces,” she said. “Everyone seems to enjoy the beauty of the huge iceberg.”
Martin plans to go back soon to try to get some night images.
Iceberg season runs from spring through late summer and the waters start to refreeze in mid-September. A combination of currents bring Arctic ice southward along the Newfoundland coast, which is how it earned the “Iceberg Alley” nickname.
CNN Meteorologist Brandon Miller said it’s rare to have an iceberg this large so close to the shore.
The iceberg looked even bigger last week, when Paddy Wadden went to check it out.
He’s lived in St. John’s his entire life and said the icebergs “are amazing to see in person.”
It’s already been a particularly busy iceberg season.
The International Ice Patrol said 648 icebergs have been seen in the trans-Atlantic shipping lanes as of this week. That’s compared to an average 212 icebergs during that period in a typical year.
If you see the iceberg, or get other interesting weather photos or videos, post them on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #CNNWeather, but be safe.

China: Stolen stone tower back from Taiwan

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SHANGHAI DAILY NEWS)

Stolen stone tower back from Taiwan

A CEREMONY was held at Shanxi Provincial Museum yesterday to welcome the return of a stone tower that was stolen 19 years ago from a village in north China and ended up in Taiwan.

The Dengyu stone tower, which was originally in Dengyu village of Yushe county, Shanxi, features Buddha images carved into its four sides. The piece was made in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

The tower was 320 centimeters high and composed of a base, a 177-centimeter body, and spire. It is an excellent example of Tang Dynasty stone carving and was given provincial-level protection in 1965.

In 1996, the spire was stolen and is still missing.

The tower body was stolen in 1998, taken out of the Chinese mainland, and donated by a private collector to Taiwan’s Chung Tai Chan Monastery in 2015. The monastery decided to return the tower to Shanxi last year after it confirmed its origins.

The tower arrived at Shanxi Provincial Museum on January 24.

“We really appreciate the temple’s decision,” said Wang Taiming, head of Yushe county’s cultural relic bureau.

“The donation is an excellent example of cultural exchange between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland,” said Master Jian Deng, abbot of the Chung Tai Chan Monastery.

The museum said it will speed up safety improvements to preserve the pagoda and organize an exhibition.

Brazil To Allow 100% Foreign Ownership Of Domestic Airlines

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS)

Brazil to sign decree for full international ownership in airlines: source

Brazilian President Michel Temer will sign on Tuesday a decree allowing foreign companies to own 100 percent of local airlines, as part of measures aimed at increasing investment in the tourism industry, a government source told Reuters on Monday.

Temer will sign the decree at a ceremony with the Tourism Minister Marx Beltrão, the source said.

Reuters first reported in January that the government was drafting the measure.

Last year, former President Dilma Rousseff issued a decree lifting the limit on foreign ownership of airlines to 49 percent from 20 percent.

As part of the new measures the government will also, according to the source, subsidize airlines to fly to remote areas that are poorly served by flights, such as parts of the Amazon.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; Editing by Amrutha Gayathri)

Mr. Putin Seeks a Meeting With Mr. Trump In Helsinki Finland In May

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE BBC)

(Are the people of Russia and the people of the U.S. really enemies of each other, no I do not believe so personally. It is the ego’s and the distrust of Nation’s Leaders toward each other, both the Civilian and the Military/Intelligence Leaderships. This is something the Media doesn’t need to be trying to become the ‘news maker’. The world is better off if the U.S. along with all of Europe, Israel and Russia are honestly friendly with each other.)–this opinion by trs.

Putin seeks Trump meeting in Helsinki in May
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 'Arctic: Territory of Dialogue' International Forum in Arkhangelsk, Russia, 30 March 2017Image copyright EPA
Image caption Mr Putin said he would be “glad” to meet Mr Trump at a summit of the Arctic Council in Helsinki

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he would like to meet US President Donald Trump at an Arctic nations summit in Finland in May.

He again rejected allegations that Russia had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.

And he said sanctions against Russia were also hurting the US and Europe.

Mr Trump had voiced hopes for improved relations with Moscow, but he has been dogged by claims of links between his election campaign and Russia.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and both houses of the US Congress are investigating alleged Russian interference in the election.

Russia ‘tried to hijack US election’, Senate hearing told

Mr Putin, speaking at an Arctic forum in Arkhangelsk in northern Russia, said he would be “glad” to meet Mr Trump at a summit of the Arctic Council in Helsinki in May.

“Both side should prepare such events,” he said. “If not, then such a meeting could take place within the framework of the usual meetings, at the G20.”

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, whose country is due to take the rotating leadership of the Arctic Council, said he would be honoured to host such a meeting.

The G20 summit of world powers is set to convene in the northern German city of Hamburg in early July.

Donald Trump (file pic)Image copyright REUTERS
Image caption Mr Trump says claims of collusion between his campaign and Russia are “fake news”

Mr Putin criticised “endless and groundless” allegations that Russia interfered in the US election, and what he termed the use of the “Russian card” in US politics.

“Do we want to completely cut relations?” he asked. “Do we want to bring the situation to what it was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s?

“I very much hope that sometime – the sooner the better – the situation will return to normal. I very much hope that we’ll… improve Russian-American relations, for the good of our people’s, and for the whole world.”

Mr Putin said he would support President Trump in fighting terrorism, and co-operate with the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency.

He added that he was ready to work with the new US presidential administration on fighting Islamic State in Syria.

Earlier this year, Slovenia offered to host a meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Trump. Mr Putin offered thanks, but said it would depend on Washington.

Western nations imposed sanctions on Russia over its annexation of the Crimea and its role in the Ukraine crisis.

Freak accident at Ghana waterfall kills at least 18

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

Freak accident at Ghana waterfall kills at least 18

Rescuers search for survivors trapped underwater after a tree fell at Kintampo waterfall in Ghana on March 19, 2017.

(CNN)A freak accident at a popular waterfall in Ghana has killed at least 18 people, according to local authorities.

A huge tree appears to have fallen amid a brutal storm trapping swimmers at the base of Kintampo waterfalls in the country’s Brong Ahafo region on Sunday afternoon, Kintampo District Police commander chief Desmond Owusu Boampong told CNN.
14 students from Wenchi Methodist Senior High School in Ghana are among the 18 people killed, Boampong added. The students were on an excursion to the popular spot at the time of the incident, another police spokesperson said.
Authorities said a further 22 individuals are currently being treated at a local hospital for injuries sustained in the accident.
Emergency teams — comprised of both local Ghana police and the Ghana National Fire Service — responded to the scene shortly after to rescue the trapped victims and aid the injured.
Eyewitnesses told local police that the incident happened around 4 p.m. (12 p.m. ET) during a severe rainstorm which caused three large trees to fall to the ground.
Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo has offered his condolences on Twitter.
“I have learned with great sadness, the unfortunate incident that occurred at Kintampo Waterfalls yesterday. (1/2)”
Following up with a second post, he added: “My deepest condolences to the families of all those affected by this unfortunate and tragic incident. (2/2)”
Kintampo waterfalls — one of the highest in the country — is located in Ghana’s Brong Ahafo region, around 400 kilometers (almost 250 miles) north of the capital, Accra. Situated on the Pumpum River, it is one of the most visited tourist sites in the country.

ISIS Demons Threatens Attacks Within India And On The Taj Mahal

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE HINDUSTAN TIMES NEWS AGENCY)

Pro-Islamic State group warns of attack on Taj Mahal

INDIA Updated: Mar 16, 2017 22:17 IST

Rezaul H Laskar
Rezaul H Laskar
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Islamic State

Security agencies say about 75 Indians have joined the IS. This includes 45 who went from India, mostly from Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka.(Site Intelligence Group)

A pro-Islamic State media group has warned of attacks in India and published a graphic depicting the Taj Mahal as a possible target.The graphic by the Ahwaal Ummat Media Center was posted on a channel of Telegram, the encrypted communication app, on March 14, according to Site Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadi activity on the web.

The graphic features a fighter in combat fatigues and black headgear armed with an assault rifle and a rocket-propelled grenade standing near the 17th century monument to love in Agra.

An inset in the graphic features another image of the Taj Mahal within crosshairs with the words “New target” below it. There is also an image of a van with the Arabic text “Agra istishhadi” (Agra martyrdom-seeker) written in English, implying the threat of a suicide attack.

Read more

This is not the first time a pro-IS group has threatened attacks in India. After terror suspect Saifullah was killed by police in Lucknow on March 8, another pro-IS channel on Telegram had incited attacks in India.

That channel had also posted a photo of Saifullah and described him as a “soldier of the Khilafah from India”.

Indian security officials have said they are yet to procure proof that Saifullah was directly linked to the IS. They noted the photo of Saifullah posted on the Telegram channel was one released by Uttar Pradesh Police and not an image procured by the group before his death. They also said Saifullah was “self-radicalised”.

According to security agencies, some 75 Indians have so far joined IS. This includes 45 who went from India, mostly from Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka, while the remainder were Indians living abroad. About 37 more were apprehended while they were making their way from India to territories controlled by IS.

Security agencies have stepped up efforts to prevent the radicalisation and recruitment of youngsters via the internet and communication apps, which are extensively used by the IS.

The US state department too has noted the threat to India from IS.

US Embassy New Delhi warns of an increased threat to places in India frequented by Westerners, such as religious sites, markets..

An advisory for American citizens issued last November said: “Recent Indian media reports indicate ISIL’s desire to attack targets in India.” The advisory warned Americans of “an increased threat in places in India frequented by Westerners”.

American Citizens: U.S. Border Agents Can Search Your Cellphone

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NBC NEWS)

American Citizens: U.S. Border Agents Can Search Your Cellphone

When Buffalo, New York couple Akram Shibly and Kelly McCormick returned to the U.S. from a trip to Toronto on Jan. 1, 2017, U.S. Customs & Border Protection officers held them for two hours, took their cellphones and demanded their passwords.

“It just felt like a gross violation of our rights,” said Shibly, a 23-year-old filmmaker born and raised in New York. But he and McCormick complied, and their phones were searched.

Three days later, they returned from another trip to Canada and were stopped again by CBP.

“One of the officers calls out to me and says, ‘Hey, give me your phone,'” recalled Shibly. “And I said, ‘No, because I already went through this.'”

The officer asked a second time.

Watch Cynthia McFadden on Nightly News for More

Within seconds, he was surrounded: one man held his legs, another squeezed his throat from behind. A third reached into his pocket, pulling out his phone. McCormick watched her boyfriend’s face turn red as the officer’s chokehold tightened.

Then they asked McCormick for her phone.

“I was not about to get tackled,” she said. She handed it over.

American citizens Akram Shibly, left, and Kelly McCormick had their phones searched as they reentered the U.S. at Niagara Falls, New York on two separate trips in January 2017. They say Shibly was put in a chokehold when he refused to hand over his phone on the second crossing. Michael Adamucci / for NBC News

Shibly and McCormick’s experience is not unique. In 25 cases examined by NBC News, American citizens said that CBP officers at airports and border crossings demanded that they hand over their phones and their passwords, or unlock them.

The travelers came from across the nation, naturalized citizens and people born and raised on American soil. They traveled by plane and by car at different times through different states. Businessmen, couples, senior citizens, and families with young kids, questioned, searched, and detained for hours when they tried to enter or leave the U.S. None were on terror watchlists. One had a speeding ticket. Some were asked about their religion and their ethnic origins, and had the validity of their U.S. citizenship questioned

What most of them have in common — 23 of the 25 — is that they are Muslim, like Shibly, whose parents are from Syria.

Data provided by the Department of Homeland Security shows that searches of cellphones by border agents has exploded, growing fivefold in just one year, from fewer than 5,000 in 2015 to nearly 25,000 in 2016.

According to DHS officials, 2017 will be a blockbuster year. Five-thousand devices were searched in February alone, more than in all of 2015.

“That’s shocking,” said Mary Ellen Callahan, former chief privacy officer at the Department of Homeland Security. She wrote the rules and restrictions on how CBP should conduct electronic searches back in 2009. “That [increase] was clearly a conscious strategy, that’s not happenstance.”

“This really puts at risk both the security and liberty of the American people,” said Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. “Law abiding Americans are being caught up in this digital dragnet.”

“This is just going to grow and grow and grow,” said Senator Wyden. “There’s tremendous potential for abuse here.”

What Changed?

What CBP agents call “detaining” cellphones didn’t start after Donald Trump’s election. The practice began a decade ago, late in the George W. Bush administration, but was highly focused on specific individuals.

The more aggressive tactics of the past two years, two senior intelligence officials told NBC News, were sparked by a string of domestic incidents in 2015 and 2016 in which the watch list system and the FBI failed to stop American citizens from conducting attacks. The searches also reflect new abilities to extract contact lists, travel patterns and other data from phones very quickly.

DHS has published 24 reports detailing its extensive technological capability to forensically extract data from mobile devices, regardless of password protection on most Apple and Android phones. The reports document its proven ability to access deleted call logs, videos, photos, and emails to name a few, in addition to the Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram apps.

But the officials caution that rhetoric about a Muslim registry and ban during the presidential campaign also seems to have emboldened federal agents to act more forcefully.

“The shackles are off,” said Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project. “We see individual officers and perhaps supervisors as well pushing those limits, exceeding their authority and violating people’s rights.”

And multiple sources told NBC News that law enforcement and the Intelligence Community are exploiting a loophole to collect intelligence.

Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement needs at least reasonable suspicion if they want to search people or their possessions within the United States. But not at border crossings, and not at airport terminals.

“The Fourth Amendment, even for U.S. citizens, doesn’t apply at the border,” said Callahan. “That’s under case law that goes back 150 years.”

Customs and Border officers can search travelers without any level of suspicion. They have the legal authority to go through any object crossing the border within 100 miles, including smartphones and laptops. They have the right to take devices away from travelers for five days without providing justification. In the absence of probable cause, however, they have to give the devices back.

CBP also searches people on behalf of other federal law enforcement agencies, sending its findings back to partners in the DEA, FBI, Treasury and the National Counterterrorism Center, among others.

Callahan thinks that CBP’s spike in searches means it is exploiting the loophole “in order to get information they otherwise might hot have been able to.”

On January 31, an engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was pulled into additional screening upon his return to the U.S. after a two-week vacation in Chile. Despite being cleared by the Global Entry program, Sidd Bikkannavar received an “X” on his customs form. He is not Muslim, and he is not from any of the seven countries named in President Trump’s original “travel ban” executive order. Half his family comes from India but he was born and raised in California.

Bikkannavar was brought into a closed room and told to hand over his phone and passcode. He paid particular notice to the form CBP handed him which explained it had the right to copy the contents of the phone, and that the penalty for refusal was “detention.”

“I didn’t know if that meant detention of the phone or me and I didn’t want to find out,” said Bikkannavar. He tried to refuse but the officer repeatedly demanded the PIN. Eventually he acquiesced.

“Once they had that, they had everything,” Bikkannavar said. That access allowed CBP officers to review the backend of his social media accounts, work emails, call and text history, photos and other apps. He had expected security might physically search any travelers for potential weapons but accessing his digital data felt different. “Your whole digital life is on your phone.”

The officers disappeared with his phone and PIN. They returned 30 minutes later and let him go home.Sidd Bikkannavar poses for a portrait in 2014. Takashi Akaishi

CBP also regularly searches people leaving the country.

On February 9, Haisam Elsharkawi was stopped by security while trying to board his flight out of Los Angeles International Airport. He said that six Customs officers told him he was randomly selected. They demanded access to his phone and when he refused, Elsharkawi said they handcuffed him, locked him in the airport’s lower level and asked questions including how he became a citizen. Elsharkawi thought he knew his rights and demanded access to legal counsel.

“They said if I need a lawyer, then I must be guilty of something,” said Elsharkawi, and Egyptian-born Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen. After four hours of questioning in detention, he unlocked his smartphone and, after a search, was eventually released. Elsharkawi said he intends to sue the Department of Homeland Security.

The current policy has not been updated since 2009. Jayson Ahern, who served in CBP under both Bush and Obama, signed off on the current policy. He said the electronic searches are supposed to be based on specific, articulable facts that raise security concerns. They are not meant to be random or routine or applied liberally to border crossers. “That’s reckless and that’s how you would lose the authority, never mind the policy.”

The Customs & Border Patrol policy manual says that electronic devices fall under the same extended search doctrine that allows them to scan bags in the typical security line.

“As the threat landscape changes, so does CBP,” a spokesperson told NBC News.

Since the policy was written in 2009, legal advocates argue, several court cases have set new precedents that could make some CBP electronic searches illegal.

Several former DHS officials pointed to a 2014 Supreme Court ruling in Riley v California that determined law enforcement needed a warrant to search electronic devices when a person is being arrested. The court ruled unanimously, and Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion.

“Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life,'” wrote Roberts. “The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought.”

Because that case happened outside of the border context, however, CBP lawyers have repeatedly asserted in court that the ruling does not apply to border searches.

For now a Department of Justice internal bulletin has instructed that, unless border officers have a search warrant, they need to take protective measures to limit intrusions, and make sure their searches do not access travelers’ digital cloud data. The ‘cloud’ is all content not directly stored on a device, which includes anything requiring internet to access, like email and social media.

Former DHS officials who helped design and implement the search policy said they agreed with that guidance.

Wyden Pushes to Change the Policy

On February 20, Sen. Wyden wrote to DHS Secretary John Kelly demanding details on electronic search-practices used on U.S. citizens, and referred to the extent of electronic searches as government “overreach”. As of publication, he had yet to receive an answer.

Now Sen. Wyden says that as early as next week he plans to propose a bill that would require CBP to at least obtain a warrant to search electronics of U.S. citizens, and explicitly prevent officers from demanding passwords.

“The old rules … seem to be on the way to being tossed in the garbage can,” said Senator Wyden. “I think it is time to update the law.”

Akram Shibly at home in Buffalo, Sunday March, 12, 2017. Michael Adamucci / for NBC News

Asked about the Shibly case, a CBP spokesperson declined to comment, but said the Homeland Security Inspector General is investigating. The spokesperson said the agency can’t comment on open investigations or particular travelers, but that it “firmly denies any accusations of racially profiling travelers based on nationality, race, sex, religion, faith, or spiritual beliefs.”

Explaining the sharp increase in electronic searches, a department spokesperson told NBC News: “CBP has adapted and adjusted to align with current threat information, which is based on intelligence.” A spokesman also noted that searches of citizens leaving the U.S. protect against the theft of American industrial and national security secrets.

After repeated communications, the Department of Homeland Security never responded to NBC News’ requests for comments. Nonetheless, the Homeland Security Inspector General is currently auditing CBP’s electronic search practices.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) also has filed two dozen complaints against CBP this year for issues profiling Muslim Americans. CAIR and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are considering legal action against the government for what they consider to be unconstitutional searches at the border.

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