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How U.S. Customs Protects Your Phone and Data Privacy

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International travelers may know that the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) can scroll through mobile phones in a ‘random search’. But the new details paint a picture of widespread and messy data collection that puts your privacy at risk.

Data copied from the device at the entry point The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell reported this week that thousands of CBP employees, including those at airports and border crossings, will be stored in a warrantless searchable database for 15 years. According to CBP, the data includes contacts, call history, messages and photos from phones, tablets and computers. It may also include 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.

In a September 15 letter, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called on the CBP Commissioner to stop “the indiscriminate wiretapping of the private records of Americans without suspicion of crime.”

Customs officers massively copied Americans’ phone data

It’s unclear to what extent federal agents can use the copied data, as there are few significant safeguards, said Saira Hussain, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights nonprofit. I’m here.

Hussain argued in court that CBP’s current data collection practices violate the constitutional protections of Americans. Based on her interviews with search subjects, agents often profile people in Muslim or Muslim-adjacent communities, but these searches affect “people from all walks of life in America,” she said. said.

Nathan Fried Wessler, deputy project director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said: “It can be medical diagnoses, mental health struggles, romantic relationships, information about children, and more.”

A CBP spokesperson said in a statement that the agency will search for devices “in accordance with statutory and regulatory authority” and that its guidelines ensure that each search is “performed carefully, responsibly, and in accordance with the public trust.” “I will confirm that.”

Intrigued by the possibility of exposing your contacts, call logs and messages to thousands of government-employed strangers? Here’s what you can do before you enter customs.

Unlike other law enforcement agencies, border officials don’t need a warrant to search your device. They may scroll through your device and do a basic search inspecting text, photos, or anything else they can easily access. But if agents suspect you’re raising a “national security concern,” they can use digital forensic tools to perform advanced searches and copy data from your device.

How you prepare to cross the border with your device depends on your acceptable risk, says Nathan Fried Wessler, deputy project director for the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

If you’re worried about agents rummaging through messages and photos with basic searches, deleting files from the device will do the trick. If you’re a political dissident, human rights activist, journalist, or anyone trying to evade government surveillance or excesses, you’ll be focused on preventing agents from accessing your device altogether.

If you are a US citizen, you can enter the US even if you refuse to unlock your device for a CBP agent. (This may not be clear from the information sheet the agent is supposed to provide during the investigation, which states that the process is “required.”)

If you refuse to cooperate, CBP may retain your device. Although it states that detention should generally not last longer than five days, Hussein has spoken to people who have not returned their devices for months.

Non-citizens, on the other hand, are not guaranteed entry if they refuse to unlock their device.

Travel with a small number of devices and turn them off beforehand

Wessler says the fewer devices you travel with, the fewer opportunities you have to search. Consider adopting a separate phone or laptop for travel without storing sensitive data.

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Please turn off your device before going through customs. According to the EFF, this prevents advanced search tools that could bypass the screen lock while the device is still powered on.

Encrypted data is scrambled into a form that is unreadable to anyone who does not have the code (in this case the password). iOS, Android, Windows, and MacOS all have full device encryption options built in.

Most modern smartphones are encrypted by default (lock your device). General instructions for Windows and MacOS are:

The easiest ways to unlock your device, like facial recognition and weak passcodes, are also the least secure. If you refuse to unlock your device for retrieval, CBP may try to unlock it for you, Wessler said. Strong passwords that contain both letters and numbers, or passcodes that are 6 or more digits make this difficult.

The Ultimate Guide to Protecting Passwords

CBP guidelines dictate that agents should only see data stored on the device itself. Not all information that apps like Facebook and Gmail send to the cloud. If you consent to search, when you switch your device to airplane mode, the scan will be limited to what is saved or cached.

You can also move your data to a cloud storage provider (iCloud, Google, Microsoft OneDrive, etc.) and then wipe or factory reset your device. This protects your data from basic visual searches. But be careful: Most methods of file deletion leave trails that can be revealed in a forensic search. What’s more, going through customs with a blank device can raise suspicion and make you more likely to be targeted, Hussain said.

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. (Please don’t accidentally show nudity to customs officials or others. Here’s how to hide nudity.)

Consider where to enter

Different states have different laws governing what CBP can inspect at U.S. points of entry. For example, in Arizona, CBP can only search devices without a warrant if you are looking for certain digital contraband. If you want to protect your privacy, it might be worth jumping to a state with stricter CBP boundaries.