Protecting Your Data in Customs

U.S. customs officials are increasingly interested in the data stored on mobile devices and laptops. For international travelers who have sensitive data on their phones (we mean corporate folks, not spies), the Electronic Frontier Foundation has these helpful tips to get your mobile device through customs safely and to keep the data stored on it secure should it be seized in customs.


  1. Know Who You’re Dealing With: This is serious stuff. Unless you want to face an indefinite detention, cooperate fully and don’t lie to border agents. If an agent intends to examine your device, remember that only a judge can require you to give up a passphrase, and if there are questions you don’t want to answer you can refuse to answer them. If your devices are confiscated, take down the agent’s identifying information and get a receipt for your property.
  2. Know Your At-Risk Devices: Any device that stores data is subject to search and seizure – this means laptops, phones, tablets, mp3 players, cameras, hard drives and, well, you get the picture. Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents only conduct such these types of searches around 300 times a month, so the likelihood it will happen to you is quite low – but it’s still a possibility.
  3. Use Encryption: Government agents can easily decipher passwords or can avoid them altogether by booting your device from a CD or USB device. The solution? Full-disk encryption and strong passphrases; using these techniques ensures that a border agent can access your data only with your consent while also protecting your device if it is lost or stolen.
  4. Deep Delete Data: One way to protect data on a particular device is to copy it to an external hard drive, then delete it from the original device. But simply deleting content and emptying out your system’s desktop trash can won’t cut it – use a data destruction tool to remove and overwrite the data.
  5. Snail Mail: There is one surefire way to make sure border agents can’t search your devices but still have access to them when you arrive at your foreign destination – mail them to yourself. You’ll skip any uncomfortable encounters in customs, but keep in mind there are no privacy guarantees for data sent in the mail.
  6. Snail Mail the Hard Drive: If you don’t want to part with your device of choice during your trip but want to protect and access the data when you arrive where you’re going, send the hard drive to your destination by mail – or pack it in your checked luggage.
  7. Snail Mail the Data: Much like the previous suggestion, the postal service can work its old-fashioned magic for you yet again if you back up your data on an external device (think a hard drive, a USB drive or an SD card), fully delete the data from your device and ship the backup storage to your destination.
  8. Cloud Protection: There are an increasing number of secure, web-based storage systems that can do the trick for you. Copy your sensitive data to one of these sites before your trip – making sure both the system you’re using and your data are encrypted – and then simply download it upon arrival. Simple as that.
  9. Kick it Old School: If you’re really worried about getting your data snatched at customs or just don’t want to deal with the headache, remember that people travelled for business for a long time without BlackBerry devices, laptops and hard drives. Use a land line or a mobile phone you buy at your destination and remember that even James Bond never used an iPhone.
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One thought on “Protecting Your Data in Customs

  1. Thank you – very helpful tips.
    ….”Deep delete data” part kinda made my hungry… I wouldn’t mind some deep fried clams…:)

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