Protect your data when travelling to the US

Martin Brinkmann
May 16, 2008
Updated • Nov 29, 2012

I personally think this is outrageous. Border Agents in the United States can not only search your laptop, mobile phone or any other electronic device that you might be carrying while traveling to the United States; They can also download computer contents or keep it for further examination. There are no written rules yet on the dos and don'ts of the process and while it is unlikely that they will confiscate or examine every single electronic device they might examine yours.

That would be bad luck and one thing that you should do before traveling to the United States, or any other country that is giving their border agents such rights is to protect your data; Or don't visit the country which I prefer to do. The easiest way to protect your data is to leave it at home. If that is not possible because you do need your notebook for work you should prepare it so that the important data is protected and hidden.

I'm not accustomed to US laws and do not know if they can force you to reveal a password for an encrypted partition. But even if they cannot they probably can keep the notebook for a certain time to examine it and probably also question you for a while which would make the trip rather unpleasant.

Your best bet is to use encryption and another encrypted container on that encrypted drive. This way you can cooperate and enter the password: Here Office, take a look, I have no problem with it. The important data would still be encrypted and inaccessible and you would definitely not reveal that password. It's impossible to tell for them anyway if there is another container unless you leave clues on the drive.

You need to make sure that all sensible data, like documents, emails, browser cache, passwords, cookies, pictures, videos, plane flying manuals, Atombombs for Dummies is stored on that second encrypted container.

Important data could be stored on a web server as well and downloaded while in the country. Just make sure it gets erased properly before leaving again. Any other ideas ? Let me know.


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  1. GRTerrero said on May 21, 2008 at 8:24 am


    I know of no article, clause, or paragraph in our Constitution that grants our government the right to suspend any part of it for any reason; not even during wartime. Although, that hasn’t prevented it from happening now, nor in the past.

    However, restrictions on the guaranteed civil rights of the citizenry have been implemented in the past during times of real war, with real enemies, with real armies, with real power to inflict devastating, nation-wide destruction and the ability to cripple our armed forces and national defenses (World War II, specifically).

    I don’t believe that the current situation, as dangerous as it is, qualifies.

  2. neill said on May 20, 2008 at 11:06 am

    take the HD out if possible
    in my dell it’s a little tray held by two screws
    that way all you travel with is “computer parts” but not a functioning system!

  3. Anon said on May 19, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    If you encrypt something then you obiously have something to hide, therefore you’ll be a suspected terrorist and they can hold for couple of days. I dont think theres any good way if you need to have your, say for an example laptop with you on the plane other than thats its freshly formatted.

  4. mule said on May 18, 2008 at 2:38 am

    No one has mentioned that these measures are a result, partly, of America being at war.

    Please post info on what measures other countries take regarding security at the borders, if you know of any.

    I know that at Heathrow, there are thousands of cameras and faces are stored in a large database.

  5. GRTerrero said on May 17, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    David, I’m afraid that remark is just too pat. For far too long American chauvanism has expressed itself with the tag line…”if you don’t like (insert any inane, knee-jerk nativistic comment here) then don’t come to America”. Native Americans should have used that rhetoric before our ancestors wrested control of their continent.

    This is not just about the invasion of privacy of foreign visitors, but about the gutting of the basic guarantees in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that were put there to protect our citizens from their government (and which also extend to any individual while on U.S. soil).

    Those are the very same rights and protections that nativists wave in your face when they feel their rights are being violated.

  6. GRTerrero said on May 17, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    What terrorist worth his suicide bomb would even attempt to pass through customs carrying incriminating evidence in something as conspiscuous and easily confiscatable as a laptop? Any really sensitive information can easily be forwarded prior to arrival to an accomplice or stored online for download later. This is just another example of Texan technological genius.

    Let’s hope that when some would-be terrorist attempts to smuggle the plans for a “nookuler” plot Mr. Bush’s Goon Squad are up to the job.

  7. Martin said on May 17, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    Well David that’s not the problem and if you would think about it for a moment you would realize that.

    This is a serious privacy invasion. I don’t want to give some border agents access to my private files, be it love letters, pictures, videos, email accounts, forum posts, business correspondence and everything else that is related to my life.

    That’s the problem. Oh and yes, I won’t come to the States (although I would like to one day) and that is one of the reasons.

  8. Dante said on May 17, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    I personally encrypt all my data on my PDA phone and laptop. And I am still waiting to be search and detained. This is because I usually go through the US eastern seaboard – the 2nd Circuit of the US Court of Appeals. The judges there actually know the laws. The problem encountered with the helpless travelers is that the first case went through the 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals. The 9th is in California – the land of the libtards. They tend to view privacy (and everything else in the US Constitution) as something only the wealthy are entitled to.

  9. david said on May 17, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    if your afraid you have something on your laptop to be arrested for …. then just dont come here to the states…

  10. JD said on May 17, 2008 at 3:23 am

    Upload all personal data to your own website (it’s cheap enough), use a freshly formatted laptop, and act stupid. Use the pass word Idontknow and when they ask you tell them ” I don’t know. The U.S. has many free wireless hotspots where you can log on to the internet anonymously and download all you want. The American government is not nearly as concerned with security as they would like you to believe, they are MUCH more interested in spying on their own citizens.

  11. mule said on May 17, 2008 at 2:29 am

    In some countries, for example China, searches of your laptop or desktop (yes, in your “private” residence) can occur at any time. While visiting China, I was told by friends that as a US citizen, I could refuse the search and ask to be taken to my consulate. Maybe there is some such right for a non-citizen entering the US?

  12. Jack said on May 17, 2008 at 2:09 am

    It’s total BS – terrorist theatre I think it’s called nowadays. They go overboard appearing to protect people from the last terrorist attack to conceal the fact they haven’t a clue about the next.

    In the meantime, they give every petty official with a peaked cap and delusions of grandeur a field day.

    We’ll never beat terrorism by ticking squares on bureaucratic forms or treating our own citizens as criminals until proven otherwise – but that’s what much of Western ‘anti-terrorism’ has descended to.

  13. Kevin Fields said on May 16, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    The best practice when traveling internationally is to either have your laptop mailed to your destination, or to keep no data on the laptop at all and install a remote desktop application, storing all your data on a remote drive.

  14. Martin said on May 16, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    You’d better have some dummy data available (use hoden partition in True Crypt) – those guys might want to keep your machine – or don’t let you into their *** country!

  15. Nosh said on May 16, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    ‘a’ clean laptop, I changed ’empty’ to ‘clean’.
    Sorry, I have OCD.

  16. Nosh said on May 16, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Break it all down to binary and memorize the 1s and 0s? :D

    Hmmm .. lesse… cut everything you’ll need there (in encrypted form, of course) to DVDs and mail them to someone you trust before you enter the country? That way you know all your data is there waiting for you, you don’t need to worry about using other people’s PCs and you can take an clean lappie along!

    Tip: To be invited for coffee and donuts with the immigration officers try using a huge American flag as your wallpaper. :D

  17. Techbuzzard said on May 16, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    Hi Martin,

    I agree with you on this. US is one of the toughest countries around which deals with issues like piracy, security issues, surveilance issues and terrorism issues. Maybe they have a good point in entrusting border agents with such rights and powers because they have learned it from their situations and happenings. If they have taken this up for countering terrorism issues or something which is really illegal which harms them, then its a valid point and its a noteworthy thing. But if they have undertook this for something else, then I reckon this is not fair enough. People who travel to US can belong to many categories like tourists, business people, diplomats and who travel for work or for any other valid reasons. The fact you pointed out like leaving the notebook at home is not a viable proposition because many people who travel to US require their notebooks for many valid and justifiable reasons. About encryption, its one of the best things to do as long as you do not have anything in your notebook which concerns them about their own security or which they think compromises their internal security or anything which they think is not fair enough.

    Every country in this world has their own rules to tackle issues which really concerns them. So when you travel to another country, its in your own interest to abide by the laws that they have and to be scott free.

    I hope you understand what I mean, and thanks for writing an article which is so important in the current scenario.

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