How to Prevent Customs Agents from Copying the Data of Your Phone

With U.S. customs getting more invasive, it is important to know how to protect the data on your phone...

customs control

It is unfortunate thing that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has the authority to randomly search through passengers’ phones WITHOUT a warrant. What’s more, sometimes they can straight out copy the content of your phone and store it on government-operated servers for 15 years.

You got that right; that single trip to the United States may cause your data to be stored on a server where US-hired admins can poke through it as they, please. Or, which will more likely be the case, structure all the data and then put it through some fancy algorithm to analyze the passengers’ whereabouts, habits and whatnot.

Specifically, the CBP collects data that includes contacts, call logs, messages and photos from phones, tablets and computers. Also, they could obtain social media posts, medical and financial information, and internet browsing history — according to a report from the New York think tank Brennan Center for Justice.

This isn’t something only foreigners are experiencing — U.S. citizens can and were getting the same treatment, prompting Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to ask the commissioner of the CBP to stop allowing “indiscriminate rifling through Americans’ private records without suspicion of a crime.”

Like that’s not enough; no one tells the passengers what their data will be used for.

Saira Hussain, a staff attorney at the privacy rights nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues that CBP’s current data collection practices violate Americans’ constitutional protections.

CBP, on its end, argues that they perform the device inspections “in accordance with statutory and regulatory authorities” and that its guidelines make sure each search is “exercised judiciously, responsibly, and consistent with the public trust.”

Unsurprisingly, some people are wondering what they could do to protect their data from regular (non-tech) and forensic inspection.

Know your rights

American citizens can refuse to unlock their devices for CBP agents and still enter the country, despite the agents telling them the process is “mandatory.”

CBP will be able to hold onto your device, and some reports suggest they could hold it for a few months — despite them saying the inspection shouldn’t last longer than five days.

So you’ll have to figure out for yourself whether it’s worth it.

On the other hand, noncitizens may have to comply with CBP’s request to unlock their devices, or they may not enter the United States.

Travel with fewer devices and turn them off

The fewer devices you have with you, the fewer opportunities for searches. You may even want to consider getting a separate phone or laptop for traveling without sensitive data saved.

Also, you should power down devices before going through customs. This guard against advanced search tools that may bypass the screen lock on devices left powered on, according to EFF.

Turn on airplane mode

If you don’t want to turn off your devices, you can put them in airplane mode. This will limit the inspection to what’s saved or cached — thus revealing less information to the CBP agents.

Additionally, you may want to take advantage of various cloud services to store your data in a move that would protect it from a basic visual search.

However, you should also be aware that walking through customs with a blank device could arouse suspicion and make you more likely to become a target.

Encrypt the data

Make sure the data on your devices is encrypted and that you use a strong password. It would add an extra hassle to the CBP agents, who, in turn, may decide to bother someone else instead.

Luckily all modern devices and operating systems come with built-in encryption capabilities, so poke around Settings and make sure it’s turned on. For what it matters, you should use this feature whether you’re traveling or not. It’s a good practice and could be life-saving in case you lose your phone or computer.

Know where to enter the country

Some CBP regulations are issued on a state-by-state basis, with different states having different laws governing what CBP can inspect at U.S. entry points.

For instance, in Arizona, CBP can only search devices without a warrant if they’re looking for specific digital contraband. So do your research and enter the U.S. through a state with more stringent boundaries for CBP.

Hopefully, some of these tactics will help you protect your privacy at the U.S. border. It is sad to see people’s privacy being infringed on their travels, but I guess that’s the scary new world we live in these days…