Should you take your phone on a plane?

A few weeks ago, Sidd Bikkannavar flew back to the United States from South America. He’s a US citizen by birth and an employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The US Customs and Border Patrol demanded that he provide the passcode to his phone. They threatened him with detention and seizure of his phone.

The phone may have contained JPL confidential information, so CBP was not only snooping on Bikkannavar, but spying on another government agency. CBP is much more on Trump’s side than NASA is.

When you’re entering the US, the Supreme Court has ruled that the government can ignore the Fourth Amendment. However, ordering people to unlock their devices is a new wrinkle, setting aside the Fifth Amendment as well.

This concerns me, since I’m planning a trip to Europe within the next year. I’ve avoided the flying problem in recent years by flying from Montreal, but that just means I have to drive across the border, and over the next few months that may become as onerous as going through an airport. The CBP, which sometimes sexually assaults women in the course of its “searches,” is pretty sure it can get away with anything now that Trump is in office.

Please don’t say, “I’ve got a light skin. That makes me privileged, so I’m safe.” If you say that to Border Patrol goons, they’ll only laugh at you. You need to protect yourself, regardless of how you look.

What should you do, especially if your phone normally contains confidential information? If it contains electronic protected health information (ePHI), the choice is really stark: Your employer could be fined millions of dollars if you comply, which will most likely end your job, or you could be in for a miserable time if you don’t comply.

One possibility is to put your phone in your luggage. This doesn’t guarantee its safety, but it improves your odds against being snooped. It increases the chances the TSA might damage or “lose” it. Another option is to back up your phone to a trustworthy cloud service, erase it, and restore it when you get to your destination. Take a piece of paper with any important numbers you need.

The EFF has some useful advice for travelers. It’s over five years out of date, so some things may have changed.

If you’re carrying data which could get you into trouble for revealing it, you should definitely delete it while traveling internationally. Beyond that, you have to decide how much risk you want to deal with. Many people have decided international travel just isn’t worth the trouble. There are lots of ways to do business internationally without having to travel.


Published by

Gary McGath

I am a freelance writer, author of the books _Files that Last_ and _Tomorrow's Songs Today_, with a strong background in software development, file formats, and digital preservation.

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