Worried your devices will get confiscated at the border? Here’s what you can do

Privacy news
3 mins
Mobile phone with an unlocked and locked icon on either side of a yellow line on the floor.

There is growing evidence to suggest that border security agents are taking greater steps to intrude into our daily lives. Just last year, customs agents in the U.S. conducted over 33,000 warrantless device searches—quadruple the number from only three years ago.

A recent testimonial in a lawsuit headed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that agents “are asserting near-unfettered authority to search and seize travelers’ devices at the border.” The information from which can be stored for up to an eyebrow-raising 75 years.

More alarming is that border officials can also search electronic devices to find information about anyone you’re connected to, e.g., family or friends, and any sources a journalist or scholar may have. Any person in your contact list is fair game. And this blatant invasion of privacy is not limited to the U.S.

Advocacy groups are fighting to stop unwarranted device searches and seizures, but there are several things you can do to prevent border security from accessing sensitive information on your devices.

1. Travel without your devices

The simplest and safest way to avoid a border search is to just not bring your devices with you. But, while it may be nice to take a break from your devices, it would probably be an incredible inconvenience to those who rely on devices to stay connected to the rest of the world.

2. Get a burner phone with only the data you need

A burner phone or computer used only for traveling is another way to reduce the amount of sensitive information you carry. Ideally, your devices only have what you need for your travels, and not much more.

When setting up your burner devices, make sure there aren’t any email accounts, social media apps, or personal photos on them. That way, if your device does get confiscated and picked through, there’s not much to see.

3. Store sensitive information on the cloud and temporarily delete apps on your phone

The good news is that in the U.S. border patrol agents cannot look through travelers’ data if they’re stored online.

So for those who can’t (or don’t want to) purchase more devices, one simple way to avoid data mining at the border is to store information in the cloud and delete everything on your device. Be careful though: If you leave anything behind the data is still fair game.

Social media and email accounts are particularly easy to remove because you just have to sign back in once you reinstall the app.

If storing data on the cloud is not an option, you can still claim plausible deniability of the data on your device by adding hidden volumes or hidden operating systems, which, if set up correctly, will hide your data from even advanced forensics.

4. Disable biometric data security and encrypt your devices

In the U.S., border agents can compel you to use your biometric security to unlock your devices for examination. Make sure you disable it and instead use long passwords and encryption.

Additionally, you should ensure that your devices are disk-encrypted. If your Android device runs 6.0 or above, it is encrypted by default, but you can check at Settings > Security. Apple users can rest easy as all iOS devices are encrypted by default. MacOS laptops can be encrypted with FileVault, and with BitLocker on Windows 10 machines.

Be wary of the fact that border agents can still seize your devices to try and have a crack at them and, if you’re a visitor to the U.S., you can even be refused entry if you don’t comply to search demands.

5. Report any violations

While there are interim solutions to the unwarranted examination of our devices, there is no substitute for a full reversal of this intrusion into our personal privacy.

Report any inappropriate behavior to organizations like the ACLU or the EFF, who are fighting to push back on infringements of your rights.

The ACLU and the EFF sued the federal government for warrantless searches in 2017, and are making headway in their case. Reporting abuse is critical in helping these organizations mount a case against Customs and Immigration.

The best way to avoid having your data seized at the border

Sadly, these solutions are not perfect. Warrantless searches still happen at an increasing rate and there’s not much you can do to stop border agents searching your devices any time they wish.

The best thing you can do is take as little sensitive data as possible when crossing a border and report any violation of privacy to organizations like the ACLU, OpenMedia, and the EFF.

Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.