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Protect Your Digital Self at the US Border

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US Border Patrol truck

This truck means business
Photo: Frank Deanrdo

While much of the current talk about the US Border is focusing on who is allowed in our country and who must be kept out, there have also been many changes when it comes to electronics. Passengers with flights from certain countries are not allowed to have laptops with them in the cabin, but at the border cell phone searches are on the rise for passengers from less-controversial regions. Vacationers might think that this has an effect on fliers, not cruisers who drive into Canada or Mexico, but the truth is that any border crossing could be met with increased scrutiny. We’re here to help you cross the border with ease the next time you drive (or fly) back to the United States.


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First of all, the authority of a border agent actually extends 100 air miles inland from “any external boundary” of this country, according to ProPublica. That means that border patrol agents should be given respect and obeyed even if they stop you at a checkpoint miles away from an actual entry. If you paid attention in school, you know that the Fourth Amendment offers protection against irrational search and seizure of property and the Fifth Amendment protects against self-incrimination, which are the two most applicable amendments in this situation. However, the Constitution’s protection is weaker when it comes to the border and you should remember that yelling at an agent about your constitutional rights could do more harm than good.

Before you even leave on a trip, take a look at all of your electronic devices and ask yourself if they all really need to come with you. If you are not traveling for work, do you really need your laptop computer? Perhaps consider leaving your smartphone behind and traveling with a simpler phone (besides data protection, it will probably save you on international roaming fees). All devices traveling should be password protected and backed up on a drive that is staying at home.

As you approach the United States Border, keep all electronic devices powered off. Besides making them more of a hassle to search, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says that devices that are turned off can better protect encrypted data. If you are asked by a border patrol agent to unlock a device or provide social media information, that’s when the situation can get difficult. Border agents must allow a United States citizen into the country, so it is safer for them to decline a search than a visitor or permanent resident. EFF recommends that each traveler complete their own risk assessment to determine if they will unlock their devices for authorities, or if they will resist. Know that resistance of any kind could result in more thorough questioning and the possibility of detention.

Regardless of your choice to cooperate fully with border agents, always treat them with respect and remain calm to keep the situation as controlled as possible. Physical resistance, snappy comebacks, threats, or lies can result in charges against you that detract from any case pertaining to your rights.

If you feel as if your rights were violated by border agents, there are many people ready to help. When the instance is fresh in your mind, write everything down in case you need to file a report including agent names or badge numbers. Once you have access to the internet or a phone, consider contacting a lawyer or an organization like the EEF to learn if there is anything you can do next.


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Crossing our borders does not have to be a stressful situation if you properly prepare. For more detailed information about your civil liberties at the border, or the right of border agents to search certain types of files such as medical records, legal documents, or a journalist’s notes, we recommend taking a look at the EEF’s extensive guide on protecting your privacy at the US border. Lawsuits have been recently filed on behalf of travelers who have had their devices searched, so hopefully we will have more specific information to pass along in the future about what to do when taking an international road trip.

News Source: ProPublica