Customs agents at United States airports often ask travelers from outside the country to hand over their phone. Agents can ask for the password, and, from there, snoop through whatever they want.
There were reports of agents confiscating international travelers’ phones after President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries caused chaos last weekend, leaving many wondering about their rights.
Travelers can refuse to hand over their phones, but immigration lawyers say that’s not going to help them get into the country.
Some will argue that if a traveler has nothing to hide, then handing over a phone shouldn’t be a problem. But this is demonstrably false. Plus, the issue shines yet another spotlight on the privacy vs. safety debate.
Border agents can misinterpret a text, email or tweet on the fly and deny someone entry based on ill-drawn conclusions, lawyers said. Law enforcement officials have also abused their access to data before. Court documents revealed in 2014 detailed how a California police officer took the phone of a woman suspected of driving under the influence, and sent a photo of her in a bikini to his colleague, who complained the woman wasn’t naked.
Protecting data at the border is a frustrating process, but lawyers with expertise in social media and immigration said travelers have several options if they’d rather not risk a border agent digging through emails, photos, tweets and more.
The most obvious way to avoid having data examined is to not bring the devices that provide access to that data.
For most people, this is not an option. But if possible, it’s the most sure-fire way to avoid having data complicate any travel plans, according to Licelle Cobrador, an immigration lawyer in New York City.
A phone for travel
Another option, according to Cobrador and Bradley Shear, a lawyer with a focus on social media law, is to buy a separate phone for travel. With a separate phone, travelers can keep their available data to a minimum. They might have phone contacts, but there wouldn’t be as much of a reason to have a few dozen apps that an agent might look through.
Of course, the costs of a second phone are likely to prevent a lot of folks from considering this.
Wiping your phone
Before handing over a phone, Shear and Cobrador said travelers might consider scrubbing its data.
First, make sure to back it up on the cloud or a portable drive. Then, on an iPhone, go to settings > general > erase all content and settings. On an Android, go to settings > back-up and reset > factory data reset, though be aware that this doesn’t eliminate SMS messaging data.
A different digital self
Some agents may be suspicious of a scrubbed phone, and Shear encourages building duplicate social media accounts. Setting up a fake email and fake social media would take work, but Shear believes the payoff for protecting privacy can be worth the risk of having an agent pick through whatever information is available.