Before I get on an airplane or travel somewhere I’m likely to encounter border patrol, military or police checkpoints, high levels of interpersonal crime (i.e. theft/mugging), or political repression, I take a hot minute to lock down my electronic shit, with an eye toward making it look like I didn’t actually put effort into doing any of this so as not to pique interest.
My main concern is a lazy border crossing guard or thief without too much computer savvy or patience. I figure I’m too much of a novice to do hardcore data protection so I try not to kid myself that I can protect my data from an intensive search, but I can dissuade the average pickpocket and official. I try to follow the security culture classic mantra of only recording or transmitting what you’re basically ok with The Man hearing and reading, since he will. As this Lifehacker article explains, “We’re not talking about the government here, mind you, or keeping your data from the authorities if your laptop is screened (although it can be effective in those situations too). The goal here is that if someone steals your laptop to sell or use for themselves, or tries to steal your identity or steal sensitive information from your job using the information on your laptop, they’ll fail.”
To do just before you leave:
- Delete all texts from your phone (inbox, sent, drafts)
- Extra effort: backup online & then delete all your contacts from your phone to download again after crossing the border
- Delete saved logins, cookies, passwords, search results, and browsing history from your browser/Twitter/Skype/etc on your computer. Better yet, enable all your browser privacy settings so you don’t record this stuff ever and disable automatic logins; type your damn passwords.
- Extra effort: delete all your bookmarks from your browser and send them to yourself in an email
- Extra effort: delete all the shortcuts to your browser, Twitter app, etc. from your desktop, start menu, or dock so it’s not obvious to the casual observer that you use these services. I have a ‘fun’ browser and a ‘work’ browser, each with a different set of bookmarks on them, so I leave the ‘work’ ones up so I don’t look like some troglodyte who doesn’t use the internet.
- Password protect your computer and phone (and specific apps on your phone, i.e. email, Twitter, Skype, etc), with something different than what you use on other stuff.
- Update! A smartypants friend adds: “With iphones, if you put a passcode on your phone and enable the 10failed pin numbers=erased phone option, it is actually very effective. The 4 digit pin actually is linked to an encryption key that is used to encrypt your whole phone. And the 10failed pin option prevents a brute force attack on the pin.”
- Encrypt your files.
- Update! My techie friend suggests encrypting your entire HD, for example with Filevault on Macs (it’s a tab in the “Security and Privacy” system preferences): “It functions just like the password screen but needs to be enabled. Just having a password isn’t enough … being that all your files can be easily accessed through an external device.”
- You can also just (or doubly!) encrypt your sensitive data (for example, using TruCrypt). I encrypt all my academic and work files, any important documents I’ve saved on my HD, photos, and my personal writing, for example, giving these an extra layer of privacy. Name your encrypted file something boring, confusing, and innocuous so it doesn’t attract attention when someone’s skimming your file manager.
- Email the (very long & complex) password to yourself and/or carry it written down by hand somewhere that’s easy for you to access but not obvious to someone else. Update! Techie cautions: “Don’t email your encryption keys/passwords being that email itself is completely insecure.”
- Update! My tech friend adds this word of warning about encryption and border crossings: “Also be aware that laws around encryption, especially at borders are very up in the air at this point. If you really want to protect your data, it may cause you some trouble.” See the EFF guide below for more info on your (lack of) rights and what to do about it.
Stuff to set up beforehand: