The mandatory stop at the U.S. Customs counter when returning from an international trip usually just involves answering a few questions and getting a stamp on your passport.
But recently, we've seen incidents of computer security experts with ties to WikiLeaks and white hat hackers being stopped by government agents and having their laptops and phones thoroughly inspected.
Unless you work in computer research, or if you have ties to whistleblowers or cybersecurity journalists, the chance is very, very slim that your electronics will be searched. But even if you don't think you're up to anything that would arouse the suspicion of the Feds, you should still take precautions. Also, the threat of theft or snooping is something you should pay attention to, no matter how far from home you wander.
Note that these rights extend only to U.S. citizens. Any foreign visitor can be refused entry to the country by border officials on almost any grounds, even if you have a visa.
If you're flying internationally, be prepared for a search and protect yourself before you travel.
Some of this information is elementary, but many readers may not be aware of even their simplest options for personal digital security. Furthermore, this article is part of a wiki anyone can edit. If you have advice to add, please log in and contribute.
KNOW THE LAW
Under the "border search exception" of United States criminal law, international travelers entering the United States can be searched without a warrant by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. CBP is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Under the Obama administration, law enforcement agents have aggressively used this power to search travelers' laptops, sometimes copying the hard drive before returning the computer to its owner. Courts have ruled that such laptop searches can take place even in the absence of any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.
If you are asked to surrender your computer, phone, USB drives and any other electronic devices for inspection, you must comply. CPB officers have the legal authority to inspect anything you carry into the country, including your electronics. You should agree to these inspections or else face detention.
If the CBP officers inspect your computer or phones, be aware of the possibility that they could be installing firmware or software to monitor your activity. They are probably also going to copy as much information as they can off your hardware before returning the items. In the end, they may decide to keep them indefinitely.
However, it is well within your rights to secure your data using passwords and encryption, and to keep your passwords and keys secret. You also have the right to remain silent under questioning. You should consider invoking that right for even questions as seemingly innocuous as "Were you traveling for business or pleasure?" Lying to the Feds is a federal offense.
Something to note about this "right to remain silent" issue: It has never been decided by the courts whether these border searches are civil or criminal. You have the right not to be a witness against yourself in a criminal matter. It is possible that this right does not extend to what is essentially a civil, not criminal, search of your laptop. Of course, if you might be incriminated by your answer, the right is clearly yours. But do consider this gray area before invoking a right that may not exist given your specific facts.
Either way, if you are a U.S. citizen who is not considered a suspect in a criminal matter, you will most likely be released after the search. The Feds may keep your laptop and your phone, but you will most likely walk even if you remain silent the entire time.
PASSWORD PROTECT YOUR LAPTOP
Password-protect your laptop. You most likely have already done this elementary step, but if you haven't, here are instructions for Windows and Mac OS X. Also, you can lock down a Linux laptop using grub 3.
Set a pass phrase on your phone. Each mobile operating system is different, but the option is usually available in your phone's settings.
For iPhones, go to Settings > General, and turn on the passcode lock. Turn off the "Simple Passcode" option, which will allow you to use a longer, more secure passcode. Also, enable the "Erase Data" option, which will zap everything on your phone after 10 failed passcode attempts. We have some additional tips in our "Secure Your iPhone" article.
For Android phones, go to Settings > Location and Security. Set an unlock pattern and make it required. From the Location and Security screen, you can also set an additional password to use your SIM card, and set an additional password to access stored credentials.
Note: If asked to surrender your passwords, you can refuse. Even if the passwords are bypassed, you can add a second layer of protection by encrypting all of your data.
ENCRYPT EVERYTHING [Superior Encryption Here]
One of the most popular pieces of software for encrypting your hard drive is also free and open source. It's called TrueCrypt, and it's available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. It provides on-the-fly encryption for all of the contents of your hard drive. TrueCrypt Howto Here
TrueCrypt can be used to encrypt any disk volume, so you can use it to protect your USB sticks and external hard drives, too. After installing TrueCrypt on one of these devices, set it to Autorun. Then, you just enter a password when you plug in your drive, and you can use it like you normally would.
It also has some additional protections in place if you're forced to reveal your passwords.
There's another popular system called FreeOTFE. It's free software and has many of the same features.
Apple offers full encryption of all user data by activating FileVault on Mac OS X.
Additionally, you should encrypt your passwords, contacts and saved e-mails using a "data vault" app. Keeper is popular (free to $30) since it works on all major desktop and mobile OSes, and it can keep your data in sync between your desktop and phone.
If you have an Android Phone, you can encrypt all of your chat messages and phone communications using simple apps from WhisperSystems. Additionally, because some encryption keys can be fetched from memory, consider not using hibernation.
Netizens should be aware, however, that encryption is often used as a presumption of guilt. What, you don’t have anything to hide?
CLOUD SERVICES ARE YOUR FRIEND
When it comes to storing sensitive documents or lists of contacts, your laptop may be the most convenient place to keep your data, but it's hardly the safest.
Before traveling, store your sensitive documents using a cloud storage service. You can access them from anywhere with an internet connection, and if your laptop ends up getting seized, searched or stolen, just download your secure documents.
Dropbox is a popular service with both free and paid plans, and it allows you to encrypt your cloud-based storage volume with TrueCrypt. The Dropbox wiki has some thorough instructions. Another option would be CloudSafe, an encrypted cloud storage provider outside the US where you do not need a specific client software.
For an extra layer of security, group together any sensitive documents and zip them up in an encrypted archive before uploading them.
On Macs, you can use the Disk Utility to create a new disk image, and then protect it with 128-bit AES encryption.
On Windows or Linux PCs, use the free software tool PeaZip to create an archive protected with AES encryption.
What better way to foil CBP than by giving them nothing to look at? Remove the hard drive from your computer and mail it to your destination ahead of your arrival. Just be sure to send it with tracking!
"And Ye Shall Know The Truth And The Truth Shall Set You Free"
WAKE UP AMERICA....ITs OUR COUNTRY!!!
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