Back in February, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a Department of Homeland Security report on laptop searches at U.S. borders. The DHS had posted the executive summary of the report on its website, but nothing else. The ACLU is still waiting for the complete report. The executive summary basically says that upholding the Fourth Amendment, protecting against unreasonable search and seizure, is a pain in the ass and that reasonable suspicion or warrants are too much to ask in the case of seizing people’s electronic devices at our borders.
As someone who has had (unfortunately) extensive experience with the TSA, the DHS, and customs officials while traveling for both work and pleasure, I will share those experiences here along with some advice to protect your information.
Sarah and the Brass Knuckles
And here begins our story. I have flown a lot in my lifetime. Between personal and professional trips, I average one or two dozen trips a year. About three years ago, I was flying from the Rochester NY airport to Grand Rapids, Michigan – going from my step-son’s graduation to my grandmother’s funeral. I was stopped by the TSA screeners for having “brass knuckles” in my purse — in reality a 1 1/2″ cat face cheap metal keychain that did not resemble brass knuckles in the slightest. I was pulled aside, my wallet was taken, and my bags thoroughly searched within my view. I got mouthy…probably not my best choice, but I was pissed. This was some over-zealous, bored Rochester TSA flunkie messing with me for no legitimate reason. I was live-Tweeting it as it was happening. I was asked to stop. I said no. I was asked to hand over my phone. I said no. I was asked to hand over my laptop. I said no. Eventually they let me go, confiscating the keychain that had made it through security in a couple dozen other airports, and with a warning that I was now on “THE LIST.” I let fly a few F-bombs and boarded my plane for my grandmother’s funeral shaking from adrenaline and anger. I wrote complaint letters to the Rochester Airport administration and to the TSA and got no reply from either (surprise, surprise).
Know Your Rights
So what did I do? I did my research like a good little librarian. I figured out what the TSA could and could not do within the U.S., and since I travel internationally I looked into what was legal at border crossings, particularly at airports. Here are documents I suggest everyone read if you travel within the U.S. or internationally. Know your rights.
Cheat Sheet of TSA Screenings and Your Rights (PDF) – This document gives good advice of what to do, what not to do, what to ask, and what your rights are.
ACLU’s Know Your Rights When Traveling – This covers everything: interviews, body scanners, pat-downs, searches of bags and electronics, confiscation of items, medication, children, etc.
Defending Privacy at the U.S. Border: A Guide for Travelers Carrying Digital Devices – Written for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), this is a good guide whether you’re traveling internationally or just within the states…or if you just plain want to know how to secure the data on your devices. This covers electronics searches at the border but also provides instructions on backing up your data, minimizing the data you carry, encrypting your data, and specific tips for different types of devices. I do all of these things and more…as I’m more than a bit paranoid now.
What Can They Do to My Electronic Devices?
U.S. Customs and Border Protection say that they can not only search but also confiscate your electronic devices at the border–laptops, phones, cameras, you name it. And they can do it all without any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing or warrants. The ACLU, EFF, and other organizations are fighting this – but it’s a slow process. What you can, and should do, if you are asked to hand over your electronics is outlined in this document–but at the bare minimum ask to see the supervisor, get a receipt for your device, and have the search conducted in front of the supervisor. What tends to happen, especially to people on THE LIST, is that they take your electronics out of the room, dump a copy onto their own hard drives, and then give them back to you. They just copied all your data–files, browsing history, contact lists, everything–and you had no ability to stop it. I call bullshit, and thankfully so does the ACLU. This is why many people who know they are on THE LIST no longer carry their own devices, instead handing them off to trusted travel companions or mailing them from place to place.
So Then What Happened Now That Sarah Was On THE LIST?
After the Rochester incident I was pulled out of line for “special screening” literally every time I flew, and seven times I was taken into back rooms for additional questioning and searches. I never agree to go through the full body scanner–not enough science or privacy protection behind those to make me feel safe. I always demand the manual pat-down, which thrills them to no end I’m sure. I feel badly for them sometimes–what a crap job to have to stick your hands down people’s pants and feel up their legs and armpits. Almost as unpleasant for them as it is for me, but I always make them do it in a public area and I always loudly proclaim why I won’t go through the scanner–hoping to educate more people about the lack of privacy and safety testing on some of the devices.
No one ever tried a full body search on me – which is a good thing because if they’d tried to make me strip and do a cavity search at least two people would have emerged from that room bloodied and needing medical attention (and I probably would have been arrested).
So to reiterate–we’re talking me being pulled out of line every time I flew anywhere, about 30-40 times in a row. I tried dressing differently (more conservatively, more casually, more dressy), being quiet, being loud, being polite, being indifferent,…it didn’t matter. Don’t tell me there isn’t facial recognition software being used in TSA screening lines, because there is. There’s no other way to explain my being pulled out every time.
Fortunately, I came prepared. I won’t go over everything I did to protect my data (a girl’s gotta have some secrets), but here are some of the things I did. I had partitioned and encrypted my laptop up the yin yang. There was one partition that booted up to public stuff–my personal email account that I use for nothing serious or secret, no work-related stuff, boring web browser history, etc. Then there was my “real” laptop–a partition that only booted up with a secondary password and which would shut down on a deadman switch unless I re-entered a password every 20 minutes. I also installed Paranoid Android on my phone (one of many reasons to have an Android device instead of an iPhone). I have since performed similar security measures with my Android tablet, which I now travel with instead of a laptop. If anybody wants to know the extensive security measures I take with my data, let me know. I’m sure I still have gaps, but am happy to share what I do know with others. Email or DM me and I’ll help.
Taking a cue from Jacob Appelbaum (a personal hero of mine who I knew before he became all famous and hunted by the feds), I also started carrying around a single USB stick with the text of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights on it and nothing else. Whenever the TSA or customs officials would ask me for my electronic devices, I’d give them that. The funny thing is they wouldn’t ask what was on it–just walk away with it and come back, hand it to me, and make some snarky comment about socialists, hippies, communists, or liberals. And I would sweetly smile for an uncomfortably long time until they looked away. That is always my favorite part. Sarah’s “gotcha” smile.
Every time they demanded to see my laptop or my phone, I said no. I said they had no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing and therefore would be violating the Fourth Amendment were they to seize my belongings. I wrote down the names and ranks of everyone I dealt with in each encounter. I live-Tweeted if I could get a connection where they had me stashed. I always asked for a supervisor to be present, I asked why I had been pulled aside (never got an answer), and I told them they could not detain me and make me miss my flight or I would be entitled to restitution and they didn’t want to explain that to their bosses, now did they? I was usually polite, though in a couple of cases I admit to getting so frustrated that some name-calling did occur. When one agent tried to swipe my phone from my pocket while I was mid-sneeze, I grabbed his wrist in a death grip and said “Over my dead body, motherfucker.” The look on that guy’s face was priceless–but also one of the scariest moments in my life when I thought “Oh, I’m gonna end up in Gitmo, aren’t I?”
On the lighter side of things, I also bought some Fourth Amendment Wear (I got the bra and panty combo) which displays the text of the 4th Amendment in metallic ink over your private bits so if you are going through the scanner it shows up in the scan (I never go through the scan, but it’s still funny).
What About International Travel?
Twice crossing the U.S. border — once coming in from Montreal and once coming in from Amsterdam — I was pulled aside, searched, and again they tried to seize my electronics. I said they were perfectly entitled to rip them out of my hands, but that it was unreasonable search and seizure, I would take them to court, and they really didn’t want that. The most fun time was in Montreal when I was asked what I’d been doing in Montreal I said I’d spoken at a librarian conference and was headed straight to another one in Michigan. The guy looked me up and down (and granted I was dressed rather punky–combat boots, zipper-laden skinny jeans, fishnet shirt) and said “Yeah right–come with me.” This was when I most lost my temper. I produced my ALA membership card, my staff ID card for my library, and I still had my frigging conference badge on. And yet that wasn’t enough. That was the time I got the mouthiest and was likely most at risk for some serious blowback for not cooperating. When I finally convinced them that I was a librarian (stereotype much?) they let me go. But in both of these cases, I gave them the USB drive but refused to hand over anything else…and they didn’t force the issue. Perhaps I was lucky. Perhaps knowing my rights made me a less easy target for them. I honestly don’t know.
Aaaaaand The White House
The most fascinating thing about all of this was in January 2012 I was asked to go to the White House to live-Tweet the State of the Union address. This was *awesome* but I was convinced I wouldn’t pass the background check because I was on THE LIST. But I passed. And when I left to fly to DC a couple days later, miraculously I was not pulled out of line. Not on the way back either. Or any of the times I’ve flown since then (except the time in Montreal, which I am convinced was based on how I looked, not who I was). So…apparently if you get cleared to go to the White House, you magically get to be off of THE LIST, or so I assume. Only time will tell.
You could say I’m paranoid. You could say the surveillance state is real and I should just accept it. You could say nothing I do is that interesting or important to get me in trouble so why do all of this (but you don’t really know me or what I do, do you?). But this is real, people. Your data is being mined, and when you’re traveling with data you’re at serious risk. There’s no reason to make it easier for law enforcement to screw you over and violate your rights.
Read the documents I linked to. Know the risks, and know your rights. The risk of search and seizure of your data is real. You know Facebook already owns your ass, as does Amazon and Google and all the other mega-corps who we sadly willingly give our data to. But you don’t have to hand that stuff over to the government just because you’re traveling. Minimize the data you carry with you. Get yourself a USB drive with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights on it. And, alas, try to be more calm and polite than I ended up being during a few of my altercations. I do not respond well to arbitrary authority, and I’m sure that ended up prolonging my stay in a few airports. Be smarter than I was. Be firm, but polite. But overall–be educated. Know that the TSA and DHS can pwn you and your data if they so choose. And do you damndest to prevent them from doing it.
Power to the people.