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How to Protect your Digital Privacy at the US Border

Ben Taylor

Ben Taylor

August 29, 2017

International borders can invoke a frisson of excitement – and a sometimes a sense of fear, even if you know you’ve done nothing wrong.

In the case of the American border, this feeling has stepped up a gear since the election of Donald Trump. Thanks to travel bans, visa restrictions and talk of walls, entering the US has started to feel rather intimidating.

One part of this that’s not been that widely discussed is the potential impact on digital privacy.

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US Privacy Laws: Digital Searches

According to a Washington Post report, the US Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) has the right to “lawfully examine all materials entering the US” without any kind of warrant. CPB spokesperson Jennifer Gabris refers to “enforcing (the) nation’s laws in an increasingly digital world” in reference to this.

What does this actually mean? Well, in 2016 nearly 20,000 people were subject to a “digital pat down” at the US border. This can involve officials insisting on accessing the data on smartphones and laptops. This is a drop in the ocean compared to the total number of people arriving, amounting to 0.005%. However, the proportion has doubled compared to the year before. Over 2,500 people were subject to these digital searches in March 2017 alone.

Sidd Bikkannavar and Others

One of the most high-profile cases of these searches involved a NASA employee named Sidd Bikkannavar. He was detained at the US border in Houston in early 2017. Officials ordered Bikkannavar to hand over his smartphone and provide them with the PIN code. The border staff reportedly took the phone for half an hour before returning it.

Bikkannavar’s case is far from unique. An NBC News report reveals how often border officials are using these powers. Refusing the searches doesn’t seem to be an option. The report refers to people being surrounded, handcuffed and forcibly detained if they refuse to unlock their devices.

Is This Legal?

Although it may seem surprisingly dystopian that this kind of thing goes on at the US border, it’s all completely legal.

The Fourth Amendment states that “reasonable suspicion” is required to search people and their belongings. However, it doesn’t apply at the US border. Officials don’t even have to give a reason to take away a device for up to five days.

It’s all laid out in the form that’s handed to people who are subject to a digital search. Perhaps the most disturbing part is that one of the reasons to seize a device may simply be that “you have been selected for a random search.”

As such, while it’s statistically unlikely that the authorities will search your digital data at the US border, they MIGHT and they CAN.

The Potential Impact

The impact of all of this is rather disturbing. When you cross the US border, officials can now look at far more than the contents of your bag. They can delve into all your digital life, and even copy any of the data they choose.

There’s also growing evidence that the US authorities are ejecting those they feel don’t conform to the “rules” – even if they’re not truly breaking any laws.

Leafly is a website that supports America’s growing legal cannabis industry. It cites two examples of people who’ve had their relationship with the US ended abruptly and permanently by border force decisions.

In one case, an entrepreneur who had studied in California was stopped at the border on a business trip. He admitted the use of medical marijuana for pain control. He was immediately barred from the country, despite the substance being completely legal in the state (albeit illegal at a federal level). Another individual, who lived in the country on an H1-B visa, was told to leave when an “airport interview” revealed he’d had medical cannabis recommended to him. He was given just one week to clear out his home and leave the US.

These incidents aren’t directly linked to digital searches. However, they highlight how these searches could turn up information that could find you categorised as “undesirable” to the US. This could be anything from admitting a fondness for a joint to streaming media illegally. To make it worse, denial of something that’s later proved true is technically perjury.

american visa

How should you go about keeping things private at the US border?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution that facilitates both privacy and easy access to all your electronic data. However, here are a series of steps you may wish to consider taking.

It’s worth remembering that this isn’t a “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” situation. Unless you’re happy to give border officials free rein to read through your private conversations, you should always remember they can do exactly that – without providing you with any justification.

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Protecting Your Digital Privacy

  • Log out of Your Social Apps

Instead of storing usernames and passwords in your web browser and social media apps, consider keeping them logged out. This is obviously less convenient but contributes slightly to maintaining your privacy. Of course, there’s always the possibility that border staff may ask for the passwords.

  • Remove Messenger Apps

If you don’t want to tempt officials to have a nose around apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, consider removing them from your smartphone and tablet and reinstalling them later.

  • Consider Checking in Your Devices

You’ll need to stay on top of the most recent regulations here, because sometimes you now have to leave electronic devices in checked baggage if you’re flying to the US from certain countries. In other cases, the rules may require you to keep them in your carry-on bags.

Keeping your devices in checked baggage means you won’t have them with you at the border. The downside is it makes them easy pickings for any dishonest baggage handlers or customs officials who could steal them while they’re out of your control.

  • Wipe and Restore

One option that Renata Castro, an immigration attorney, suggests is to wipe all your devices before arriving at the border. This is obviously an extreme step, and restoring the data later is a time-consuming hassle. It’s also fair to raise the point that doing this could make officials even more suspicious.

  • Leave the Tech at Home

Again, this is an extreme step, and one that isn’t feasible for many travelers. However, leaving all devices at home means the authorities will have nothing to snoop at. Unfortunately, it also means you must endure an involuntary tech detox!

  • Consider Encryption

Some encryption software provides features to store data away in hidden folders. This is worth consideration, but it doesn’t help when it comes to social media and other online accounts.

  • Use Passwords Everywhere Possible

It’s well worth implementing complex passwords and PIN codes on all your devices. This adds extra obstacles for anyone planning to nose around. In some cases, border officials will only ask you to turn a device on to prove it’s functional, without any intention of intruding further – so there’s no point in providing extra temptation.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, it seems that digital searches are a growing trend – and perhaps one that will spread beyond the US. Furthermore, the steps required to completely avoid a potential invasion of privacy are extreme and inconvenient. Ironically, carrying them out could also place you under further suspicion.

It’s depressing to think that, based on current figures, tens of thousands of people will find themselves subject to such searches at the US border this year. The “powers that be” will no doubt cite national security as the reason behind them. However, as a Washington Post commenter astutely points out, “if the point is to prevent someone from blowing up an airplane, why is (the device) being checked after you get off one?”

There are steps here that you can take to help you protect your privacy. Of course, there’s also the option of avoiding the US until it starts feeling like a more hospitable place again.

Featured image credit: ilikestudio/Shutterstock.com

Image credits: Constantine Pankin/Shutterstock.com, Victor Moussa/Shutterstock.com