Countermeasures for Electronic Device Searches
Your personal electronic devices contain data about you and your activities, data which is private and no one else's business. When authorities require access to your devices, phone apps, email or social media accounts as a condition of crossing the national border, without specific reasons to suspect your culpability in a crime, it is an act of blatant overreach and abuse of power. It is a similar act of overreach to search devices randomly on the streets or in shopping malls, subway stops, or bus terminals.
The best way to protect yourself from an unfavorable outcome after an electronics search is to have clean devices before the search begins. Zero your devices, leave them at home, or don't have devices with controversial data. Travelers are being denied entry to countries because friends posted radicalized material on social media. People have been stopped on the street in more than one authoritarian country and been subjected to arrest for having images of pro-democracy protests. Protect yourselves by having nothing of value on your phones or computers when entering an area where you may be subjected to a random search or broad security sweep.
The list of defensive acts below is posted here to help you protect your personal data from invasive searches and sweeps by authorities. In essence, don't bring data into a search:
- If possible, do not bring personal electronic devices out for travel, shopping, or protesting.
- If you have company-issued electronics, keep them clean: never view, listen to, or download controversial material.
- If you must bring personal electronic devices, use "burners" containing no personal data (difficult in many countries).
- Memorize your passwords and log out of your social media, email, and banking apps.
- Delete the social media apps and controversial data from your devices before traveling, shopping, or protesting.
- Consider doing a factory reset of your devices before crossing a security checkpoint.
- Consider wiping the free space of your devices before crossing a security checkpoint.
- Have token social media accounts, with benign postings, for disclosure to inspectors demanding your account info.
- Keep controversial media (images, text, video) off of your devices as much as possible.
- Back up your contacts, personal data, controversial content to secure storage on servers outside of any problem countries.
- Use encrypted storage and backups.
- Be aware that fake cell phone towers, wifi hotspots, and public USB chargers may be sources of dangerous spyware and malware.
- Be aware that authorities could install spyware on your devices. Consider doing a factory reset after authorities check your devices.
- Be aware that some spyware is extremely difficult to detect and remove, and may be set up to evade factory resets.
- Again, consider traveling, shopping, or protesting with "burner" devices and memorized social media and email passwords.
The above list is a starting point, not an end, for ways to protect your private data. Expect more and more future threats to your privacy and unreasonable demands to give up your data. Rarely, if ever, is it in your interest to cooperate, so make a strong effort to give up nothing, ever.