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You and Your Devices at the United States Border

School’s out, fiscal year is closing, travel season is upon us. Whether we are traveling for business or pleasure, we are traveling with devices. I know when my family travels, there are multiple smartphones, a couple of tablets, and a laptop or two traveling with us. After all, one must stay connected in this hyperconnected world we share.

Traveling across borders - be it by land, sea, or air - brings with it special circumstances that apply to all of us as we seek to exit one country and enter another. In the United States, the “border zone” allows the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to conduct a search of one’s belongings when you are entering or leaving, within certain guidelines.

According to USA Today, CBP announced that they had “conducted 30,200 border searches of electronic devices during the year (2017) that ended Sept. 30, 2017.” Of those, 29,200 searches involved travelers from other countries.

How many travelers cross the United States borders each year?

More than 397 million travelers arrived in the United States in 2017, according to the USA Today article.

The percentage of travelers subjected to having their electronic devices searched is relatively low, in the grand scheme of things. But if you’re the one who is handing your smartphone over to the customs officer, it’s your primary concern.

What can a traveler do?

Traveling for business with your employer’s devices? Check in with your Travel Security Program administrator and determine the company policy for allowing CBP or any government’s customs/immigration officers access to the company device prior to traveling. The policy may be to surrender the device, without sharing the credentials to unlock the device and the company’s legal team will follow-up with additional details to get you through the process.

Depending upon the country, this may derail the entire purpose of the travel, so one will want to be sure their “decision tree” matches the expectations of the employer, which you should discuss with your supervisor and Travel Security Program administrator, as well.

For personal devices, if asked to provide your PIN, password, or crypto key to the CBP officer conducting the interview and inspection of your items, you are entitled to decline.

Should you decline to provide those items, your devices may be detained, though you may be able to proceed.

Advice for travelers crossing the border

A United States citizen or lawful permanent resident cannot be denied entry to the United States for declining to provide access to their device. However, you may find yourself in “secondary” inspection for additional questioning and your travel will likely be delayed.

Advice from Electronic Freedom Foundation and others is to always have your device in “airplane” mode, so that it is not connected to any network, or cloud storage. The CBP’s regulations do not permit inspection beyond the device at hand.

Now, should they have probable cause/suspicion that an individual is engaged in illegal activity, poses a threat to the United States, etc., they can request what is called an “advanced inspection” (a euphemism for forensic inspection) of the device and that can take up to 15 days, sometimes more.

What if you are a foreign national visitor to the United States and decline to allow your device to be inspected? That recently happened to a Canadian coming to the United States. The individual declined, and the CBP declared the individual unsuitable for entry, and they were turned around and not permitted entry into the country.

While the United States is discussed in this particular case, the United States is not alone in this regard, though documentation on the rules, regulations, and law surrounding the border zone searches is seemingly more robust in the United States than elsewhere.

One should expect that their electronics may be subject to inspection each time they cross a border. You may wish to use travel devices, which are devoid of personal or corporate materials, in doing so compliance with the border inspectors request to perform a physical exam is a non-issue, as there is nothing present to lose.

As you would consider using special travel devices for your personal devices, your organization may have similar options for those traveling with particularly valuable information or data that could cause potential border crossing issues. Again, talk with your Travel Security Program administrator.

Christopher Burgess

About Christopher Burgess

Guest Author

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost - Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century (Syngress, March 2008).

The opinions expressed in guest author articles are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of Cylance.