During the past week, I have received a lot of questions regarding how to better protect the information contained within personal digital devices and accounts while traveling internationally so I have decided to create this post with some tips.
Hackers, cyber criminals, authoritarian governments, etc… want access to your personal digital life for troubling purposes. You may want to protect the privacy of your digital devices/accounts to combat identity theft; or to protect confidential business trade secrets; or to be able to anonymously voice your political opinions; or to be able to send or receive nude selfies of yourself or your significant other(s); or you may have personal medical information or thoughts that is just none of anyone’s dam business.
For years, governments have been stepping up their surveillance of not just its citizens, but, those who visit their country. In 2014, I appeared on C-SPAN to discuss some of the privacy and cyber security challenges that attendees to the Sochi, Russia Olympics encountered. Multiple times, I have had clients tell me about intrusive border searches around the world that may include the temporary confiscation of their digital devices.
Last week, BBC journalist and British citizen Ali Hamedani was detained while entering the United States and required to provide U.S. border agents access to his password protected mobile phone and personal social media accounts. While at first glance this may sound like a blatant violation of U.S. law, comprehensive border searches are legal and have been carried out for many years.
When entering the United States, whether you are a U.S. citizen or foreign national your privacy rights are limited. This has been the case for many years and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) even has an information sheet regarding searching electronic devices. During the Obama Administration, the idea of requiring foreigners to provide access to their Facebook and other social media accounts was proposed, however, the idea appears to have been shelved until now.
When crossing international borders, you can refuse to give up a password or refuse to provide access to your digital devices and accounts. However, refusal to do so may lead to you being denied entry into that country. In some instances, the border patrol may even confiscate your digital devices and search them anyway without your permission even though their legal authority to do so is questionable. This may happen anywhere around the world.
Searching the digital devices of those entering or exiting a country may soon become common place around the globe. Unfortunately, people in authority have abused their power and utilized digital device access for illegal purposes. For example, a California Highway Officer (e.g. CHIPs) was fired and prosecuted for searching and stealing nude photos of female suspects and sharing them with other police officers. Last month, a high school principal in Kentucky admitted to stealing nude photos from the cell phones of his students.
Excellent digital privacy hygiene is important so I have included the following tips to protect your privacy when traveling internationally:
1) If possible, rent a cell phone when traveling and/or use a mobile computer that is either new or one that has a clean hard drive.
2) Back all of your data up to a secure cloud service before beginning your journey. Make sure your photos, texts, emails, etc… are all backed up to the cloud and that your cloud account is not associated with the digital device you are traveling with because its possible that you may be asked for your cloud account password.
3) Make sure you have passwords on your digital device and accounts. However, create a unique throwaway password for your digital device(s) that are not the same as your digital accounts in case you are required to turn over your password during a search of your device.
4) Create “Alternative Social Media Accounts”. These are not “Fake” accounts; they are “Alternative” accounts that contain very little personal information.
5) Delete your most important phone call logs.
6) Delete your most important phone contacts.
7) Delete apps that may raise suspicion such as encrypted messaging apps.
8) Delete your cookies and search history and reset your devices advertising identifier.
9) Erase all of your device’s content. On an iPhone go to settings > general > erase all content and settings. On an Android device, go to settings > back-up and reset > factory data reset; however, be aware that this may not eliminate SMS messaging data.
10) Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), especially when logging into “free” Wifi in the airport or other public places. There are many VPN options and some of them are free.
These are just some of the many things you can do to better protect your privacy, safety, and security when traveling.