How to Protect Your Data at the Border

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have been demanding that travelers hand over the passwords to their mobile devices at the border for agents to search and collect data at an alarming rate. In fact, searches have more than doubled to 5,000 this February compared to 25,000 in all of 2016.1

CBP believes that your Fourth Amendment rights don’t apply at the border and claims it has the right to search, confiscate and download personal data from your phone without a warrant or probable cause, regardless of your citizenship or immigration status. A recent investigation by NBC News of searches of American citizens at the border found that in the vast majority of cases reviewed 23 out of 25 Muslim passengers were singled out.2

CREDO takes your privacy very seriously, and we strongly believe that discrimination or prejudice of any kind, especially by government officials pushing the limits of their authority or violating your constitutional rights, is absolutely unacceptable. CREDO is also fighting for immigrant rights at the border by pressuring Congress to pass the Access to Legal Counsel Act, which would give immigrants detained by federal agents at U.S. borders and in detention centers the right to access legal counsel and prohibit immigration officials from denying them food and water.³

On April 4, Sen. Ron Wyden introduced legislation that would prohibit law enforcement from barring entry to Americans who refuse to provide their passwords at the border and explicitly require a search warrant before any phone owned by a U.S. citizen is searched. CREDO supports this legislation.

While CREDO and our allies work to stop these unconstitutional practices, we want to share with you some steps from our friends at the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation about how you can protect your data and rights when you travel across the U.S. border.

1. Prepare before you travel. Before traveling abroad, EFF recommends that travelers plan ahead. They suggest leaving your devices at home, traveling with a separate temporary device with less personal or sensitive information, moving your data to a cloud service and deleting information off your primary device and using “private browsing mode” on your device whenever possible.

2. Protecting your data and privacy at the U.S. border. At the border, CBP agents may ask you to unlock your device. EFF suggests that you turn off your device before crossing the border and consider deleting or logging out of apps like Facebook, Twitter, cloud storage or other apps that could contain personal information.4 

According the the ACLU, you may need to consider your legal status in the the U.S. regarding whether or not you want to comply with CBP agents’ requests to hand over your device:

“If you’re a citizen, you can’t be denied entry into the country if you refuse to comply with a request to unlock your device or to provide a password. But you might be detained for longer or have your device seized and not returned to you for weeks or months.”

The same should hold true for permanent residents and green card holders. Visa holders and tourists, however, risk being denied entry into the country for refusing to comply with CBP demands and should assess that risk before traveling to the United States.

The ACLU also suggests that if you do agree to unlock your device at the border, enter the password yourself without divulging it to the CBP agents, who may enter your password into a government database.5

3. What you can do after crossing the border. If your device is searched or seized by the CBP, here are some steps you can take especially if you believe your rights were violated, provided by EFF4:

  • Ask the government for written records of your search.
  • Change your passwords and login information.
  • File a complaint with CBP and Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. If searches of your private information happen regularly, seek help from DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.


For additional information about protecting your data and rights at the border, please read EFF’s guide, “Digital Privacy at the U.S. Border: Protecting the Data On Your Devices and In the Cloud,” and the ACLU’s article, “Can Border Agents Search Your Electronic Devices? It’s Complicated.

The ACLU has also produced this short video describing how you can protect your data at the border:

CREDO is a proud supporter of EFF and the ACLU, and CREDO members have voted to donate $323,755 and $1,342,510 to these organizations respectively. CREDO Mobile is committed to protecting your data from the government and is honored to consistently receive a 5-star rating on our privacy policies from EFF, the only mobile company to receive a perfect score.

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CREDO members who use our products every day are the reason we are able to fund organizations like the ACLU and EFF each month. Learn more about CREDO Mobile, the carrier with a conscience.

 

References:

1 Adam Schwartz, “Border Agents Need A Warrant to Search Travelers’ Phones, EFF Tells Court,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, March 20, 2017
2 NBC News, “American Citizens: U.S. Border Agents Can Search Your Cellphone,” accessed April 5, 2017
3 CREDO Action, “Tell Congress: Pass the Access to Legal Counsel Act,” accessed April 5, 2017
Sophia Cope, Amul Kalia, Seth Schoen, and Adam Schwartz, “Digital Privacy at the U.S. Border:
Protecting the Data On Your Devices and In the Cloud
,” accessed April 5, 2017
5 Esha Bhandari, Nathan Freed Wessler, Noa Yachot, “Can Border Agents Search Your Electronic Devices? It’s Complicated.” ACLU, March 14, 2017.