As if airport security was not already bad enough post 9-11 with the new liquids-in-a-bag rules and an obsession on shoes fit for a fashion guru, travellers passing through UK airports can now expect to be taken away for questioning by police if they have more than four phones on them.
I was passing through security at Manchester airport when things did not seem quite business as usual. Prior to the trip, I had just been in the right place at the right time and managed to nab five of the newly-released Google Nexus 5 on launch day. Rather than just put them through the x-ray again as I expected them to, they took swabs on each phone and phone box to check for drugs, then took them away. Only after I was left waiting and wondering for too long, told me to collect my other stuff as I would have to be questioned by police.
Police? Drug tests? What happened, I was wondering. Did someone object to my usage of the term Axis of Espionage in my writing in which case I made a mental note to ask my editor for a raise given the success it had in getting me into trouble with the spooks. Or was it the book in my carry-on luggage, Cyperpunks by Julian Assange, that upset them so much. Or was I already a target of GCHQ because of my extensive use of strong crypto and anonymizing tools - PGP, OTR, TOR and BitMessage come to mind. Whatever it was, I was thinking, the most they can do is hold me for nine hours as they did to David Miranda. Must not crack. Stay strong. Just think of the Pulitzer when this is over.
As it turned out, the police were simply interested in whether my phones were stolen. After what seemed like an eternity waiting (about an hour to hazard a guess), a nice young copper came to ask me why I had so many phones.
“The Nexus 5 was just launched,” I told him.
I offered to show him my receipts if I could log on to Google Play but apparently bureaucratic rules meant that electronic receipts were not valid as proof of ownership in 21st century Britain.
Of course every legitimate business traveller keeps his phone’s paper receipt with him at all times.
And my other phones? Well, I had one older Galaxy Nexus with a cracked screen I had just dropped, a newer Nexus 4 and one dumb phone for when the others were out of juice. Hardly an unreasonable number of phones I told him.
He went away to run checks on all my phones and I overheard some discussion about the phones not being registered. Well, of course they were not as they were new, in box and just bought, I wanted to point out.
After saying that the phones were all registered to LG (which was odd, as I didn’t think phones should ever registered to their manufacturer) he let me scurry off to be the last to get on the gate.
After packing my bags again, I told the supervisor at the security that all this could have been avoided if they had just asked and I could have showed them the Google Play receipt.
“No, if you have more than four phones I have to call the police,” was the blunt, bureaucratic, reply.
The UK is at high risk of phones being stolen and exported to run on foreign networks thanks to the culture of “free” subsidized phones and easy-to-claim phone insurance. But to have police waste hours questioning any geek that comes through with too many devices was a joke.
The other thing that struck me was that the police obviously had a big database of IMEI numbers to run a check against and it was probably one that was woefully inefficient considering the time it took to run the numbers of my eight devices through their database. IMEI numbers are not really designed to be shouted out over a police walkie-talkie I guess.
Or was it all a ploy? At the back of my mind I still wonder if they had loaded some sophisticated nation-state malware onto my phones. They were away from me for over an hour and Google / LG probably has a backdoor to bypass the simple Android lock pattern. Maybe they were interested in finding out the identity of my sources and taking my OTR fingerprints off the phone so they can launch a man-in-the-middle attack with my contacts.
Maybe I am being paranoid.
Whatever the reason, I felt concerned enough to hard reset and re-flash the ROMs on my phones when I got back to Bangkok and am seriously thinking of wiping my phones every time before I get on a plane to or from the UK from now on.
Perhaps you should too, in case the thought police find something they do not like.