Protect Your Data at the U.S. Border

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Skip the fingerprint unlock.

Imagine how you would react if a customs agent in any country you were visiting told you that in order to enter the country you would need to turn over all of your journals, past communications and every picture you had ever taken–even the ones you haven’t shared. That’s the equivalent of what U.S. border guards are asking for when they insist that people unlock their computers and mobile devices to be searched, and insist that people provide their online account credentials.

The increasing paranoia and xenophobia of my home country is starting to make it feel more and more like an authoritarian regime, free from the due process protections both U.S. citizens and foreigners have long admired.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has produced a great Border Search Pocket Guide.  It’s one page that you can fold up into quarters with tips on protecting your data and your rights at the border, depending upon your citizenship and residency status.  The good news is that if you are a U.S. citizen, you can (and should) refuse to unlock your devices and surrender the login credentials for your online accounts.  The bad news is that if you aren’t a U.S. citizen, you may be denied entry unless you agree to this disproportionate quid pro quo.

This shouldn’t be a partisan issue–it’s about due process and our expectations for civil society.  We should all strive to prevent society’s shift to one in which people whom the government has no cause to suspect of wrongdoing are compelled through coercion to surrender their private communications–a reflection of their private thoughts–for governmental review and archival.  If you’re inclined to simply cooperate, under the theory that you have nothing to hide, then I’d encourage you to read Daniel Solove’s great essay I’ve Got Nothing to Hide and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy.

Democratic governments should always have a healthy fear of the people they represent.  But the more they know about your worries, your indiscretions, your dreams and your secrets, the less they have to fear from you.  Information is certainly power and transferring all of our personal information to the government is an unreasonable and perilous shift in the balance of power between us and our government.

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