So let's say that you were detained by the TSA on your way out of the US. They demand your phone password and you give it too them. Now when they attempt to plug your phone, you phone breaks their computer (either by accident or on purpose). Would the TSA be able of charging you for anything and would they be able to inflict any repercussions on you (except for detaining you for longer)?

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    Setting aside the legality of the TSA demanding your phone password (which is debatable)...Was the damage by accident, or on purpose? That matters.
    – cHao
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 21:35
  • This is almost completely in theory, but I heard someone did this to the TSA so I was just wondering about it. Thanks
    – Itmm
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 23:38
  • Was it the TSA or customs? Customs officers are far more likely to demand access to electronic devices than are TSA officers.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 2:21

2 Answers 2


Intentional sabotage of a TSA computer system is almost certainly a serious crime and would also almost surely give rise to civil liability, although you might avoid both if you warned the TSA that the phone was set up to intentionally break their system, in which case it might be confiscated as contraband.

If the product had a "feature" unknown to you and that you had no reasonable reason to know of that caused the harm, you would ultimately have no criminal or civil liability, although the manufacturer might be strictly liable to the TSA under a product liability theory, and you would probably be detained as a witness to figure out what happened.

If the product had a "feature" that broke the TSA computer that could be de-activated and that you meant to de-active but carelessly failed to, you would have negligence liability to the government and might or might not have criminal liability (I'm not enough of an expert in the relevant statutes to know). You might be liable for a strict liability Federal Communications Commission offense for having a device that is in violation of their regulations.

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    Just to mention...no standard phone has a "fry a computer when plugged in" feature. :)
    – cHao
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 21:43
  • @cHao I would imagine that the notion is that there is malware on the phone which the user may or may not be aware of, and may or may not be in control of. I doubt that a hardware based electrical surge, for example, is what the OP is really asking about. I also added scare quotes to the word "feature" in my answer to clarify what I mean.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 22:10
  • A hardware based electrical surge, though, is one of the very few situations that don't require malice or gross negligence on the OP's part. Malware doesn't generally have that kind of control over a USB port, even on a rooted phone.
    – cHao
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 22:26
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    And what would a surge do? Burn out one USB port, maybe all of them, maybe the PCB the USB port is on. They have spares. A $20 USB hub would firewall them from even that. Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 22:30
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    @Harper What is possible is a job for other SE forums. Here in Law.SE we assume that the question's technical assumptions are true whether or not this is the case, for the sake of argument, unless the possibility to totally absurd to a non-expert. And, the kind of stuff proposed in the OP certainly happens in fiction all the time.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 0:11

There's an old military saying:

 Once is happenstance. 
 Twice is coincidence. 
 Three times is enemy action.  

To sue you for money damages and win, they'd need to show (more likely than not) that the damage was your mistake. To prosecute you criminally under system tampering, or destruction of property, they would have to prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that you meant to damage their system, and they can't even really start seizing computers and subpoenaing your online activities until they show reasonable suspicion to a DA, judge and grand jury. Here is where probability matters: it is borderline absurd that this would even be possible, so it having happened before is very important to penetrate that disbelief.

On the other hand, they can sue you for anything, on the pretense of recovering the cost of the equipment. That might actually be the better tactic here because they can subpoena anything without court oversight - the judge only looks if you ask him to (quash), but you'd have to know what you were doing, and move pretty fast.

Once the civil discovery exposes a reasonable suspicion of criminality, they cross-table their work to the D.A. and it becomes a criminal investigation. However in civil law, they are supposed to “CC you" on everything, and the moment you see them going after the incriminating stuff, you could be in the wind. That doesn't matter if you have nowhere to go.

One place I differ with my colleague is you having some duty to actively do something to protect their system, e.g. Turning off a feature known to damage computers. If you had asked to use TSA's system for your own purposes, sure. But TSA didn't ask. They seized, so they handle it at their own risk. Heck, if you said "hey, you need to turn off X so it doesn't damage your computer, here, let me see it for a minute", they would assume you were trying to hit the "wipe" button.

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