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4th Amendment WearBack 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.

My Advice

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.

“All Your Data Are Belong To You: TSA, DHS, devices, and your rights”

  1. Henry Mensch Says:

    Well done! Keeping the mouthiness to a minimum is probably a better strategy, but it sure is satisfying sometimes. This sort of shenanigans just gets deeper and deeper: what happens when the content they copy off “your devices” isn’t your information (perhaps your employer’s info, but not yours)? It’s such a bottomless pit …

  2. Preston Says:

    Security is one thing and security theater is something else entirely. Sadly, nobody in the DHS seems to know the difference.

  3. Do You Fly Much? The “Librarian in Black” Has Got Your Back Says:

    […] Read the rest for more of her experiences of being screened. She also has cheat sheets for learning how to make it through screenings while protecting your rights (and your electronic devices). […]

  4. The Rodent Says:

    Right on. Thanks for the great tips. Love the deadman switch laptop… and the special USB stick for TSA. 🙂

  5. KFred Says:

    I have a pocket-sized constitution and always put it on the top of my things in the bin – opened and highlight to the 4th amendment.
    I just created my own USB stick for just such a purpose.

  6. Linda in NE Says:

    Looks like the terrorists have won. And they’ve done it through DHS and the TSA. Gotta tell you though, I love the idea of those 4th Amendment undies. The USB drive is good too. Bet they really don’t know what to do when they come across a traveler like you who knows her rights and refuses to be intimidated. Kind of upsets their apple cart. 🙂

  7. Shane White Says:

    America is evidently a scary authoritarian place. I don’t think I want to go there. Perhaps I might go the Saudi Arabia instead 🙂

    Perth, Western Australia

  8. Susan R. Says:

    Your “cheat sheet” was drawn up by Sai, a/k/a, saizai, a gentlemen who seems to be in the beginning stage of giving the TSA fits.

    Marc Randazza has apparently taken on his case. Randazza is the attorney who took on a TSA clerk, Thedala Magee, threatened Amy Alkon with a suit for $500,000 for saying Magee raped her during a pat down. Needless to say Magee immediately backed down.

  9. All Your Data Are Belong To You: TSA, DHS, devices, and your rights | The Travelin' Librarian Says:

    […] Read the full article @ […]

  10. Seb. Says:

    I have dual citizenship (canadian and venezuelan) yet for some reason every time I try to enter the states with my canadian passport I get pulled aside to one of what I like to call “intimidation” rooms, you know when they overly ask you who you are and wht you are doing in the states while a guy with an M-16 looks over your back. I might understand their reaction if I was entering the country with my venezuelan passport but I get pulled aside even when I show my canadian one. I guess that they must think I have an illegal passport or I’m passing some drugs through the border but its still incredibly frustrated to get pulled aside for racist stereotypical reasons, also I don’t have protection from the 4th amendment or the bill of rights because I’m not american of course. I’ve also been stopped for no reason whatsoever by state patrol in florida and california most probably for racial profiling too but eh, that’s the world we live in these days. Its a lil bit satisfying to see their facial expression every time they think they stopped a “wetback” and then there’s me talking in a canadian accent. Funny shit, eh?

  11. Wilson Dizard Says:

    Dear Sarah:

    Thank you for your consistently informative and helpful information about libraries, digital rights, privacy and related matters. Your work exemplifies and reinforces the strength of our civil society.

    When others tell me, “If [event X occurs], I’m moving overseas,” I take heart and hope from the example set by yourself and other human rights activists here in the US..

    On a different topic, I urge you to reflect for a moment about how your experiences of TSA harassment would have varied if you were a man.

    Please ask some men you know what happened during police encounters in which they themselves, or any other men present, “engaged in name-calling,” called a police officer “motherfucker,” or grabbed a cop by the wrist, as you describe. What happened next?

    This preliminary list (see link below) of the 84 people killed by non-military police officers in the first three months of this year provides some perspective.

    The list includes 81 men and 3 women.

    That’s a ratio of 27 men to 1 woman killed by police in the US so far this year.

    The men reportedly were aged between 5 years and “80s.” The three women on the list were aged 46, 38 and “unknown.”

    As far as I can tell, all of the fatalities resulted from police gunfire (including the lone police suicide listed)..

    The 81 men included 15 unnamed. Of the three women, one is unnamed on this list.

    According to the brief summary of one of three incidents during which a woman died. a policeman shot his wife and son during a family argument. He then set fire to their house, called 911, waited for the cops to arrive, stepped into the house and shot himself.

    The police shot another woman when she allegedly tried to run over a cop who had come to arrest her on multiple burglary charges.. Police shot the unnamed woman when she reportedly started stabbing her boyfriend in the throat with a knife.

    Please stop picking fights with cops.

    By doing so, you’re risking death (though not as much as you would be if you were male), and you’re embarrassing your friends.

    Good Luck and Best Regards, Wilson

  12. Sarah Says:

    With respect Wilson, I’m not picking fights with cops. TSA agents are not police officers. And I’m not picking fights – I am simply responding to their violation of the Fourth Amendment with usually respectful and polite behavior, and in extreme circumstances (as the one I listed), not so polite behavior. I encourage polite behavior – but these TSA agents ARE NOT COPS. Don’t confuse the two.

  13. electrical connectors Says:

    I love your story! I learn so much and I though they can search everything when you are in the airport. Now I can say NO . thanks to you!



  14. Cheryl Says:

    Thanks, I’ll be flying next month.

  15. paulsignorelli Says:

    When we sheepishly acquiesce to what you have described here, we are complicit in surrendering the rights we so often claim are essential to what we value as citizens. Thanks for the powerful reminder of where we are slipping and where we need to stand firm.

  16. Paul Signorelli Says:

    An article on p. B6 of the New York Times today (4/16/2013)–“Trying Passenger Patience: Asked to Comment on Airport Scanners, the Public Pounces”–offers an avenue for expressing opposition to the sort of situation described in Sarah’s original article here.

    “The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit…ordered the T.S.A. to ‘act promptly’ to seek public input, nothing that the ‘privacy, safety and efficacy’ of the body scanners ‘no doubt would have been the subject of many comments had the T.S.A. seen fit to solicit comments,” the reporter writes in the Times article.

    Those interested in providing public input on a proposed T.S.A. regulation on the subject of advanced imaging technology used to screen individuals at security screening checkpoints should go to, search for TSA-2013-0004, and note that we’re being told that the most effective comments are those that respond to the regulation rather than those simply expressing generic opposition. Comments are being accepted through June 24, 2013, and requests for further information can apparently be sent via email to [email protected]

    Here’s the comment I posted on the site; I’m including it here in case others want to provide their own versions:

    “I am writing to in opposition to TSA-2013-0004 as well as continued use of advanced imaging technology used to screen individuals at security screening checkpoints.

    “The technology is intrusive; the justifications for its use are overstated; and those who in any way express a preference for avoiding the technology feel punished by the aggressive manner in which TSA patdowns/searches are conducted.

    “Let’s start with the intrusions: the original scans that literally undressed each passenger on those screens were, frankly, intimidating not just to those TSA was trying to detect, but to the overwhelming majority of travelers who pose no security risks. Reducing the amount revealed by those screenings does little to leave any passenger with any sense of modesty or privacy in place.

    “The justifications cited in the executive summary are patently misleading. The assertion that “The level of acceptance by passengers has been high; the vast majority of passengers do not object to AIT screening” on page nine–within the executive summary–for example, blatantly ignores the fact that most of us know better than to object since those who do are subjected to other forms of search that are even less pleasant and, in extreme cases, can lead to being placed on the no-fly list.

    “There really is a sense of being punished when one ends up being subjected to the full-body patdown–something I experienced after a TSA official mistakenly sent me through a scanner while I was wearing a boot-brace to protect a broken foot, thereby setting off an alarm that another TSA official said could have been avoided if I’d originally been directed to a different type of screening.

    “As a frequent traveler, I believe that effective security screening is important–but not to the point where intrusive technology and intimidating searches make many of us feel less rather than more secure.

    “Thanks in advance for considering these thoughts.”

  17. Sarah Says:

    I love you, Paul. Thank you.

  18. Aileen Says:

    Wow, I have to say that I would probably not be brave enough to react the way you did … respect! Love the post; thanks for sharing!

  19. Jeff Karpe Says:

    Check out my page “Defund the Department of Homeland Security” on FB

  20. fly from the usa | Travel & Languages Says:

    […] one american’s experience of going through security in the us: […]

  21. Michael Says:

    I seriously laughed, when you were called a communist/socialist/hippy for defending the U.S. Constitution? That really shows how little even the TSA workers know about their own country’s laws. It also show’s how little they care. I have never been asked to fork anything over to them myself, but I love the USB device idea as well as the metallic 4th amendment clothings…. I am going to do that for when I fly from now on.. although I don’t fly often anymore. Excellent blog post, thank you Sarah.

  22. Catherine Voutier Says:

    I had a pat down once because I had left a hearingaid battery in my pocket. This was in Singapore. I’m ultra careful what I leave in my pockets now! When flying in the US recently, I went through this but I really should have objected due to no evidence as to its radiation harms (no evidence doesn’t mean that it is safe). But I learnt recently that TSA has removed the naked scans due to public pressure. Yes! Instead, there will be generic bodies (whatever that means).

    I am paranoid now about data security due to the NSA scandal. ASIO have been involved. Just as the fallout is still happening, the AU Feds launch an e-Health record with no information about where the data is being stored. Before I ever sign up to something like that, I need to know as much about the company administering it and if they are using cloud-based technology.

  23. Algnernon Says:

    CNN: “A new government report says misconduct by Transportation Security Administration workers has increased more than 26% in the last three years.”

  24. Festina Lente and Social Media: Thinking Before We Post | Building Creative Bridges Says:

    […] online—as long as we don’t let it keep us from saying what we and wonderful colleagues like Sarah Hougton know must be […]

  25. dont wanna name myself Says:

    i haven’t been home in a while, currently studying abroad. if i have 2 family members being prosecuted and watched by fbi for stuff related to white collar disputes and i wanna come home for a visit, can you tell me what i can expect upon reaching a mainland airport? what are my rights? ive done nothing and know nothing but im apprehensive of how i will be treated. id like to add i am of the worst cultural orientation when it comes to tsa =(. does being a girl and being in the medical field help me here?

  26. Sarah Houghton Says:

    Read through the links I have in the “Know Your Rights” section. And good luck!

  27. Catherine Voutier Says:

    Hi Sarah

    Read this today and thought you’d be interested. Avoid x-rays and scanners if not clinically beneficial! I really shouldn’t have gone through that full-body scanner when I flew in to the US earlier this year.

  28. Airport Security and Citizen Journalism | Communication in Contemporary Society Says:

    […] Houghton, S. (2013, April 3). All Your Data Belong To You: TSA, DHS, devices, and your rights. Retrieved October 9, 2014 from […]

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