Imagine you’re about to get on a flight to New Orleans to see your sweetie. You’re in line dreaming of jazz, beignets and jambalaya when you’re pulled aside by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent. He wants your cell phone – no, not just your cell phone, your password! He wants you to unlock your cell phone so he can rummage around in it. He spies your Tinder dating app and gets interested, and…wait, this can’t be happening. He orders you into a closed room. He tells you that you can’t get on the flight because, well, it appears that you work in an escort service. You are dumbfounded. Did you die and wake up in the cast of Saturday Night Live?
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans against unreasonable search and seizures, but the government has contended for years that these rights evaporate at border crossings. The American Civil Liberties Union disagrees, particularly when it comes to electronic devices like smart phones and laptops. “The federal government’s dragnet approach to law enforcement and national security is one that is increasingly turning us all into suspects,” ACLU officials warned recently.
In the meantime, if you’re traveling, take some precautions. Here are suggestions from ACLU staff attorneys Esha Bhadari and Nathan Freed Wessler and others on protecting your electronic data – and yourself:
- Travel with only the information you need. Get travel-only or “burner” smartphones and laptops that contain no private or sensitive information. An alternative is to encrypt your laptop and ship it to yourself in advance.
- Switch off your device before going through security checks. This is a good idea even if the information is encrypted.
- Store sensitive data and photos in the cloud. Don’t keep a hard copy of this data with you, and disable the apps to the cloud before you travel.