Keep Your Data Safe From Snoopy Officials at the Border


If only they'd thought to encrypt their data.

It's summer and a holiday looms, which means a lot of people are traveling. And with those travelers goes any number of laptops, tablet computers, smart phones, flash drives and other widget-y repositories of important and often-private data. If you plan on going anywhere near an international border, get ready to share your information with officials — or even to hand your widgets over on indefinite loan for the perusing pleasure of those who protect us from whatever bogeymen the government is invoking at the moment. Fortunately, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has produced a handy guide that won't eliminate invasions of electronic privacy at the border, but might help you manage them.

Acording to the ACLU, which represents joint U.S.-French citizen Pascal Abidor in a lawsuit over border searches of electronic gear, "[b]etween October 1, 2008 and June 2, 2010, over 6,500 people — nearly 3,000 of them U.S. citizens — were subjected to a search of their electronic devices as they crossed U.S. borders." EFF points out that the feds can get away with this because:

Several federal courts have considered whether the government needs any suspicion of criminal activity to search a traveler's laptop at the U.S. border. Unfortunately, so far they have decided that the answer is no. Congress has also weighed several bills to protect travelers from suspicionless searches at the border, but none has yet passed.

For now, a border agent has the legal authority to search your electronic devices at the border even if she has no reason to think that you've done anything wrong.

In a printable, PDF-format guide for travelers, EFF advises two basic precautions:

  • Making regular backups, which ensures that your important information stays available to you if your computer is ever taken from you, lost, or destroyed. (If you don't have access to your computer, you'll still have access to your data.)
  • Encrypting the information on the computer, which ensures that your information stays confidential from other people whom you don't authorize to access it. (If you lose control of your computer, other people won't have access to your data.)

Cloud-based backups are discussed as a good tool for travelers, though the connections to the backup service should be encrypted. If the data is first encrypted before backing it up, it's especially secure. Very sensitive files can be backed up, completely deleted using special software before crossing the border, and then restored. That could avoid a confrontation with border officials who might demand a password as the price of keeping your property.

EFF also mentions scenarios in which a traveler mails a laptop ahead in order to avoid crossing the border with sensitive data on an electronic device, or travels with a wiped device after copying the data to storage devices and sending that along separately.

And, of course, software such as TrueCrypt can create hidden encrypted volumes on a hard drive that aren't apparent to most inspections.

Defending Privacy at the U.S. Border: A Guide for Travelers Carrying Digital Devices (PDF) doesn't contain any absolute solutions to the problem of snoopy border checkpoints, but it's worth looking at for anybody who has to cross an international border with sensitive data.