How to Protect Your Phone and Data Privacy at U.S. Customs

International travelers may know that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) can scroll through your phone in “random searches.” But the new details paint a broad and confusing picture of data collection that puts your privacy at risk.

Data copied from device at entry point Entry into the United States — including airports and border crossings — has been kept in a database for 15 years and thousands of CBP employees can search it without a warrant, The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell reported this week. The data includes contacts, call logs, messages and photos from phones, tablets and computers, according to CBP. It may also contain social media posts, medical and financial information or internet browsing history, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York think tank.

senator. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote a September article. A letter on the 15th asked the CBP commissioner to stop allowing “indiscriminate access to the private records of Americans without criminal suspicion.”

Customs officials mass copy Americans’ phone data

Sierra Hussain, an attorney with the privacy-rights nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, said it was unclear to what extent federal agents could use the copied data because there were few meaningful safeguards.

Hussein argued in court that CBP’s current data collection practices violated Americans’ constitutional protections. Agents often profile people from Muslims or Muslim-adjacent communities, but those searches affect people “from all walks of life in the United States,” she said, based on her interviews with those on the search.

“You don’t have to commit a felony to protect certain parts of your life from government agents,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of the Speech, Privacy and Technology Program at the ACLU. interference.” . “It could be a medical diagnosis, mental health struggles, romantic relationships, information about our children, you name it.”

In a statement, a CBP spokesman said the agency searches equipment “in accordance with statutory and regulatory authorities” and its guidelines ensure that each search is “sensible, responsible and consistent with the public trust.”

Not keen on opening your contacts, call logs and messages to thousands of government-employed strangers? Here’s what you can do before entering customs:

Unlike other law enforcement agencies, border authorities do not need a warrant to search your device. They might do basic searches—they scroll through your device, check text, photos, or anything else they can easily access—even if they don’t suspect you of wrongdoing. However, if an agent suspects you pose a “national security concern,” they can perform an advanced search using digital forensics tools to copy data from your device.

How you’re prepared to use your device to cross the border depends on the risk you’re willing to take, said Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy program director of the Speech, Privacy and Technology Program at the ACLU.

If you’re more concerned about agents digging through your messages and photos in basic searches, then deleting the files from your device will do just fine. If you’re a dissident, human rights activist, journalist, or anyone else looking to avoid government surveillance or excessive interference, your focus may be on preventing agents from accessing your device.

If you are a US citizen, you can refuse to unlock your device for CBP agents and still enter the country. (This may not be clear from the information sheet the agent should give you during the search, which says the process is “mandatory.”)

If you refuse to cooperate, CBP can keep your device. It said detentions should not normally exceed five days, but Hussein said she had spoken to people who had not gotten their devices back in months.

Meanwhile, if non-citizens refuse to unlock their devices, they are not guaranteed access.

Travel with a small amount of equipment and turn it off beforehand

The less equipment you carry with you when traveling, the less chance you have to search, Wessler said. Consider using a separate phone or laptop for travel without saving sensitive data.

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Turn off the equipment before going through customs. According to the EFF, this prevents advanced search tools from bypassing the screen lock when the device is powered on.

Encrypted data is scrambled into a format that can’t be read by someone without a password — in this case, a password. iOS, Android, Windows and MacOS all come with built-in full device encryption options.

Most modern smartphones are encrypted by default (make sure you lock your device). The following are general instructions for Windows and MacOS.

The fastest ways to unlock a device (such as Face ID or weak passwords) are also the least secure. If you refuse to unlock your device for a search, CBP may try to unlock it on its own, Wessler said. A strong password with letters and numbers, or at least six digits, will make this harder.

The Ultimate Guide to Protecting Passwords

CBP guidelines instruct agents to only view data stored on your device itself, not all messaging apps like Facebook and Gmail send to the cloud. If you agree to search, flipping your device to airplane mode will limit inspection to saved or cached content.

You can choose to move your data to a cloud storage provider such as iCloud, Google or Microsoft OneDrive, then wipe or factory reset your device. This will protect your data from basic visual searches. But be warned: most file deletion methods leave traces that can be discovered by a forensic search. Plus, Hussain said, passing through customs with blank equipment can raise suspicions and make you more likely to be targeted.

If sensitive photos, messages, or other data are easily visible on your device, move them to a private location, such as a hidden or password-protected folder. (I beg you not to accidentally show nudes to customs officers or anyone else. Here’s how to hide them.)

Consider where you entered the country from

Different states have different laws governing what CBP can inspect at U.S. entry points. In Arizona, for example, if CBP is looking for specific digital contraband, they can only search for devices without a warrant. If you want to protect your privacy, it might be worth flying to a state with tighter boundaries to CBP.

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