If security wants your password: Privacy for travelers with digital devices

If security wants your password: Privacy for travelers with digital devices

Summary: Travelers face increasing privacy challenges when going through security checkpoints. Make your holiday travel less stressful and read some EFF guides for travelers with digital devices.


Traveling for the holidays is a good reason to familiarize yourself with protecting your privacy and data while traveling with digital devices, and knowing what security agents can - and can't - do to your devices when you travel.

digital travel privacy

Anyone who travels with laptops, phones and tablets should know what to do if security asks for their password, an agent asks to see what's on their phone, and how to protect sensitive or private information if their gadget gets out of their hands.

For instance, while traveling inside the U.S. border, it's important to know that the TSA isn't supposed to confiscate laptops, search digital devices or demand passwords

On the TSA blog, they write (NOTE: TSA blog link was removed and TSA pointed me to this link):

TSA does not and will not confiscate laptops or other electronic devices at our checkpoints.

(...) Should anyone at a TSA checkpoint attempt to confiscate your laptop or gain your passwords or other information, please ask to see a supervisor or screening manager immediately.

However, the TSA has been working with the Department of Homeland Security on a secretive watchlist program called Secure Flight - those people who have been covertly put on "enhanced screening" and "No Fly" lists.

Traveling abroad is where egregious digital privacy invasions occur: U.S. border agents can legally search your laptop or other digital device and copy the contents, as well as confiscate devices.

Border agents can do all of this without suspicion or a warrant. And in my opinion, it shouldn't be allowable.

The EFF has been fighting these serious violations of privacy for years, and have put together a few excellent primers on your rights, making backups and encryption, passwords, deciding when and how to fight agent demands, and what to expect if your device gets confiscated.

Even if you think you're not a troublemaker, or don't have anything interesting enough for agents to care about, you should think twice about letting agents search your digital device. 

Do you really want strangers looking at your personal communications, photos, business plans or information, contact information for loved ones... and if they copy it, how do you know their database won't get hacked?

Protecting your digital privacy from search without oversight or accountability from authorities isn't just reasonable, it's becoming necessary.

The EFF has a few excellent posts you need to read before you pack.

A crucial and detailed guide is Defending Privacy at the U.S. Border: A Guide for Travelers Carrying Digital Devices.

In it, learn from the EFF about basic precautions, how the government searches devices, how (and when) to protect your data, encryption and good passwords, border agent demands, and more.

On the EFF's Travel Screening page, they cover the basics on border search, and travel 'blacklists' such as the Department of Homeland Security's Automated Targeting System.

 Post image: "I do not consent to the search of this device" sticker, from the EFF shop. A great stocking stuffer!

Topics: Privacy, Hardware, Laptops, Legal, Mobility, Security, Travel Tech

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  • Even the Border Patrol searches are un-Constitutional

    The problem is the fascistic courts ruled it legal, and Congress has failed to enact law correcting their interpretation.
  • can you say, "cloud"?

    do not trust the government for one moment. If you need to travel overseas either set up an 'anywhere' account with a commercial provider or an FTP server at your home or place of business. Put your sensitive stuff on that and grab it AFTER you arrive at your overseas place.

    On returning, dump everything onto the cloud/home server before departing. Of course make sure that the remote stash is properly protected from hackers with strong password, etc.
  • shocked

    am just shocked reading this. Is this the same for Europe? It is essentially interrogation to glean all stored knowledge
  • Border Patrol

    I am shocked to read what US border guards can do. It sounds outrageous. I live in Britain and I have never heard of such a thing in Europe.

    If anyone wants to see inside my laptop they would have to ask me to log in. Once this happened. They just wanted to see if it was a real computer, not a dummy, prior to boarding an aircraft somewhere. A long time ago, so details are hazy.
    • Eye in the sky

      They don't need to confiscate your laptop, since they already know everything you're up to with all the security cameras in the UK...
  • It really doesn't make anyone safer.

    Anyone can protect their data from search such as wizardjr's suggestion above. You can even make a Linux partition and Windows will never see it. (seriously, TSA people are not really not that smart)
  • Linux Partition?

    Now that you have posted that comment, I expect a memo will go out requiring all agents to check for non-Windows partitions, and giving them "idiot-proof" instructions to do so, which, when followed by idiots, will make all the partitions on your device unreadable.
  • We wish education creditials indicated something..

    SeanConnery007... if only it was that simple (not hiring drop outs)
    Ever watch Jay Leno's "jay walkers"?.. college educators, teachers, etc.. with advanced degrees, that appear to be - illiterate and without any logical thought processes in their heads.

    Which is some indication of how things have become so ... broken?

    Everyone has become dependent on "titles" , " questionable accomplishments", etc.. to mean something... when they represent very little or are of very limited value in evaluating a person's ability in reference to a given task/job.

    sorta like , credentials for positions of authority (Congress)?.... useless.
  • TSA page removed

    Note the link to the TSA blog entry about electronic devices has been taken down. What to make of that? Are they going to be confiscating devices domestically now too?
  • TSA is interested not only in laptops...

    TSA will also confiscate your remote Tardis controller (because it looks suspicious). Also be careful about your odor eaters. They might find those suspicious as well. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2236439/Geoffrey-McGann-Artist-carrying-homemade-watch-bomb-California-airport-escapes-charges.html?ito=feeds-newsxml
  • Since Homeland security

    Started I have made it a point to stay out of the united states and not vaction or travel there.I'll keep my money at home and there economy can continue to shrink as they travel father down the the road to being a totalitarian regime.No longer are they the land of the free and the home of the brave but the land of the cowering and home of the meek!