The Constitution-trampling ritual that takes place every day in airports across America is now de rigueur. Somehow the practice of standing in lines with thousands of other people while a government agency that has no Constitutional authority to exist, rifles through your belongings has become just a normal part of the travel experience. You may even be physically handled in a way that was once considered unlawful but is now good for only a few days of internet outrage. And when all is said and done, you return to blind tolerance. So it may come as no surprise that the noose surrounding your digital privacy is tightening as well.
Digital privacy may become a thing of the past for travelers as the Trump administration considers a demand for people entering the United States to divulge personal passwords to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents. While according to the Guardian, the administration claims that this step is only for foreign nationals from certain countries, that is not entirely accurate.
In at least one recent incident reported by The Verge, a natural-born United States citizen — and NASA scientist — was barred from re-entering the US until he gave CBP agents his phone and access pin. His phone contained confidential information linked to his work as a scientist for NASA; the agents had no clearance to view that data, and no warrant – but barred the man anyway until he gave the officers what they wanted.
It’s not enough to separate your toiletries into the mandatory plastic bags for your carry-on luggage anymore, either. Entire articles explain the “harmless items” that could cause the Transportation Security Administration to search your checked bag as well. This report from Lifehacker urges you to “think about how your everyday items could appear to a person looking for threats on an x-ray machine,” implying, of course, that if a TSA agent decides to dig through your personal possessions, it must be because your packing gave them the wrong impression. And it’s all done in the name of safety.
While some might argue that even citizens should have to give up their social media passwords and device access PIN if it keeps the country more secure, the truth is that even that argument falls flat when one considers the ripple effects of such actions. If you are not traveling, but someone you’ve emailed is at the airport handing over their device, your privacy is violated – with no probable cause, no warrant, and no justification. That’s not security – that’s called unlawful surveillance.
Thankfully, there are steps one can take if you are traveling internationally (or domestically, since that seems to be the direction things are going now). This report from WIRED offers a relatively reliable guide to creating the type of system that will foil agents trying to get into personal devices. Some of their advice includes encrypting your device’s hard drive – it’s free to do, and a wide variety of tools mean that nearly any device can be locked down.
Other things you can do to protect your devices and digital privacy while going through security or Customs is to power down. Encryption works best when the device is off — without the encryption password; no one will be able to boot up your device – even if they seize it.
As WIRED points out, American citizens cannot be compelled to give up a password or access PIN, so simply having strong passwords may be enough to keep government agents out of your phone at the airport. The only problem with refusing to give up your password is that the officials will likely detain you for a few hours and may seize your device.
If you’d like to go one step further, you could always create a social media presence that is completely sterile, and use a throwaway pre-paid phone specifically meant for traveling. If you are forced to give up your passwords, your information is still safe. WIRED also suggests letting your family or even your attorney know when you’re entering Customs or airport security, and when you complete the process.
While these ideas may work, there remains another available option. The steady and pervasive encroachment upon our liberties often demands a different response than merely gritting our teeth and putting up with it, or even creatively coming up with ways to get around it. Perhaps the correct response to this blatant and repeated violation of our rights demands a simple refusal to comply.
Unfortunately, until American citizens are willing to just say no, the government will keep trampling our liberty – and we will keep trying to find ways to conveniently comply.