Travel Security: Border Search Policies May Jeopardize Sensitive Data

By: Jeff Bertolucci| - Leave a comment


Travel security is complex, to say the least. U.S. border agents have the challenging job of protecting the nation from threats, but the steps they take in order to achieve that goal can have far-reaching implications.

It’s common for company-owned electronic devices — typically smartphones and laptops — to carry sensitive information critical to the organization’s future. If these internal emails, documents, presentations and other digital content should fall into competitors’ hands, the results could be disastrous.

It’s no wonder, then, that businesses are increasingly concerned with heightened border security. CIO recently recounted the story of artist and magician Aaron Gach, a U.S. citizen who in February returned to San Francisco from an art event near Brussels. Gach claims that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents demanded that he unlock his iPhone SE, warning that if he declined to do so, they would detain his phone and other personal effects.

Ultimately, Gach complied with the CBP’s demands — a difficult decision that many business travelers may also arrive at to avoid undue delays and potential conflicts with federal agents. But should they? And how might travelers avoid revealing organizational secrets and strategies when facing a similar situation?

Murky Legal Ground

Gach, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is protesting the CBP search, CIO reports. The ACLU claims the CBP’s cellphone search violated Gach’s constitutional rights.

“Searches at the border must comport with the Fourth Amendment, and as the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in Riley vs. California, the privacy rights afforded by the Constitution absolutely extend to the information on a cell phone. Yet the government maintains that it can search travelers’ electronic devices at the border without a warrant, probable cause or any justification at all,” the organization notes.

However, U.S. courts have generally upheld a border search exception to the Fourth Amendment, granting CBP the authority to search electronic devices without a court-ordered warrant, reports CIO.

Business Security vs. State Security

Debating border agents on the constitutionality of electronic device searches is unlikely to produce favorable results. However, there are steps business travelers can take to minimize exposure of sensitive information.

  • Consider traveling with stripped-down devices holding as little sensitive information as possible, Gach recommends.
  • Log out of all applications, such as email, before landing.
  • Temporarily remove the email app from your smartphone to prevent CBP agents from searching work messages, the ACLU advises.
  • For even greater protection, privacy experts suggest scrubbing your devices of sensitive data before traveling. You can store this information in the cloud or on another device that remains at home, CIO reports.
  • Having a separate, encrypted section on a laptop or phone may raise the suspicion of border agents, so it’s wiser to store sensitive files elsewhere.

Here’s another travel security concern: The CBP is expanding its two-year-old Mobile Passport Control (MPC) project allowing travelers to use a mobile app to bypass long lines at U.S. entry points. While convenient for business people, the MPC effort could expose personal and corporate data on mobile devices to unknown third parties.

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About The Author

Jeff Bertolucci

News Writer

Jeff Bertolucci is a Los Angeles-based journalist specializing in technology, digital media, and education. His work has appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance, InformationWeek, PCWorld, Macworld, The Saturday Evening Post, The Los Angeles Times and many other publications.