How to Keep Phone Data Safe When Going Through Customs

Feb 27, 2017

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Going through customs is usually a hassle anyway thanks to long lines, security questions and bag inspections, although the global entry program has streamlined the process when coming back from trips abroad. Add to that a new concern in regard to privacy rights, especially after the highly publicized story of a NASA engineer — and US citizen — Sidd Bikkannavar, whose phone was recently confiscated by Customs and Border Protection officers on January 31. Bikkannavar was even ordered to hand over his phone’s passcode so the Customs officers could search the device, which he eventually did, but not after worrying about the personal and work-related information that was on it.

Over the years, more and more authority has been given to border agents to inspect travelers’ personal electronic devices, even those of US citizens — there’s even been mention of customs agents eventually having the power to access visitors’ social media accounts before they’re allowed to enter the country. In response to growing worries, Wired recently gathered a group of lawyers and security experts to help develop a strategy to maintain your digital privacy while complying to federal regulations upon entering the US. Here’s a look at some of their guidelines, worth keeping in mind the next time you find yourself traveling home from abroad.

Secure Your Personal Electronic Devices

Encrypting your computer’s hard drive and creating a strong password or pin code for your phone and laptop will make it difficult for customs agents to actually pull information off your devices. Remember that for these features to be fully functional, your phone and computer must be fully powered down.

Don’t Surrender Your Password

You are not legally required to give your password to border agents, but if you decide to stand strong, be ready for a ride as agents can still seize your device, detain you for hours or ship off your electronic device to a forensics facility — according to American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Nathan Wessler, it could be months before you get your stuff back.

Have an Advocate

Before going through customs, it’s advised that you let a lawyer or a loved one know that you are about to re-enter the country, as you might not be able to contact anyone if you are detained.

Use Certain Electronics Just for Travel

If you really want to play it safe, have a separate set of electronics that you take exclusively on trips abroad — don’t store any of your sensitive personal information on these devices and don’t link them to any of your active social media accounts. That way, you can still surrender your password if you have to without compromising too much privacy.

Disable Your Devices

A somewhat dramatic option to stop agents from searching your phone is to deny yourself access. Set up two-factor authentication, so not only would you have to enter a passcode to access your accounts, but you’d also have to receive a unique code via phone to get in. It’s also worth noting that if you ditch your SIM card before you go through border control, agents will not be able to enter your accounts since your phone will have essentially been rendered useless.

Remember: There Are No Real Protections

Although all these things may impede or delay the US government in rifling through your personal information at customs, there are still very few protections to stop them from searching outright. The 2014 Supreme Court case Riley vs. California declared warrantless searches of devices at the time of arrest to be unconstitutional, but unfortunately provided no guidance as far as seizures at American borders. Another less desirable option, of course, would be to travel phone and computer free to avoid situations like this altogether.

H/T: Wired

Featured image courtesy of Scott Olson via Getty Images. 

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