You Have No Privacy Protection When Crossing Borders

Every time you cross the border you risk getting your privacy violated and valuable information stolen from you.

This article is inspired by an article about how the Chinese authorities are installing secret spyware on the electronic devices of visitors to the Xinjiang province. It turns out that the software secretly searches for everything from manuals for producing weapons to Japanese heavy metal music. At the same time, the software will download emails, contacts, and text messages. Basically, everything you have on phone, tablet or laptop, or access to from them. The story was researched by The Guardian in cooperation with a couple of other European Newspapers.

Borders Are Becoming a No-Man’s Land Without Privacy Protection

This is a part of an increasing global trend that travelers crossing borders are stripped of their privacy. The excuse is often the fight against terrorism, spreading of hate speech etc.but,  in many cases, the implications are much wider.

And it is not just regimes like China that have tightened their grip and invaded people’s privacy. Countries like the USA have given the border patrol wide powers to search incoming travelers electronic devices

“computers, disks, drives, tapes, mobile phones and other communication devices, cameras, music and other media players, and any other electronic or digital devices.”

And the reason given for this is:

CBP officers must determine the identity and citizenship of all persons seeking entry into the United States, determine the admissibility of foreign nationals, and deter the entry of possible terrorists, terrorist weapons, controlled substances, and a wide variety of other prohibited and restricted items.”

Dire Consequences

For travelers, this can have dire consequences. In some countries, just listening to the wrong piece of music can send you directly to jail, while in others, the wrong sexual orientation can give you a death sentence. But even if you as a foreigner traveler might not be harmed, any locals you are in contact with or visiting can get into serious trouble. Many countries don’t even bother to dig too deep to understand the full truth.

But for businesses, scientists, journalists and others traveling professionally, this is also a great problem on a professional level. Who says that business secrets, research ideas, sources collected by journalists are not passed on to local competitors, universities, or security agencies? In some instances, there have been rumors about proposals that have been snapped up by Intelligence agencies and then passed on to competitors.

What can you do?

It is extremely important to be careful about what kind of data you are carrying with you when you travel. If you travel for pleasure, you should leave all the devices you use professionally back home.

1: Using a burner phone and/or blank tablet/laptop

The safest measure is to use is what is called a “burner phone” or a completely blank phone, tablet or computer. Some multinational European companies require their employees to use the blank devices the company supplies them with when they leave the European Union. If you don’t have a multinational company to supply you with blank devices every time you travel, you might instead acquire a travel set that you use just for traveling and without any data on.

Before you go you install a solution like GoToMyPC on your office PC or home computer and leave it on while you are away. That way you will always be able to access files, documents and everything else you need while traveling.

Before you leave you should also buy a VPN-subscription but don’t install it before you reach your end destination, as it might look suspicious that there is installed a VPN-app while passing through security. The best thing to do will be to memorize the login information.

Secondly, you should use a password manager to remember all your passwords for logins to social profiles etc. This will allow you to use very strong hard-to-remember passwords so you, with great confidence, can claim that you can’t remember the passwords to all your accounts when asked. Again, memorize the login to the password manager, but now you can forget all the rest of your passwords. Again, don’t install the password manager before you leave.

The first thing you do when you reach your end destination is to install the VPN app and activate the VPN connection so all further communication will be encrypted. Right after this, you can install the GoToMyPC app, and if you need it you can install LastPass, but in many cases, you can just use the devices you travel with as dumb terminals, while all your work is done on the computer back home.

2: Format the laptop

If the above is not a viable scenario, you can still do quite a lot before you leave.

If you need your laptop, you can backup all data on it – which you should do anyway – then format the hard drive, and use a security program to write over all the data on the hard drive so it becomes very hard and expensive to restore the data. Finally, you can restore the operating system and install just the bare minimum for what you need during your travel. Be careful that you have all that you need to restore the operating system before you follow this procedure.

Generally, I would recommend that you use an old laptop as it is quite a lot of work to do every time you travel.

3: Delete everything you won’t need

On a more simple plan, you can delete all apps to social media accounts before you leave, but remember to back up all your data, maybe to the cloud. Also make sure that all the data uploaded to the cloud is encrypted. You can use services such as Boxcryptor, Cryptomator, or Sookasa for this purpose.

Always Do This

Use a VPN-connection

This is one of the best ways to protect yourself while traveling. First of all, all traffic to and from your devices will be encrypted and nobody who snaps up the traffic on the way will be able to make any sense out of it, and at the same time, your identity and location will be hidden.  Read more about why you should use a VPN-connection when you travel here and read about the best VPNs for travelers here.

Use a password manager

With a password manager, you only have to remember one login and password. This will make it a lot easier to use different and stronger passwords for each resource you log in to. We recommend that you use LastPass which has a good track record for being highly secure and user-friendly. Read more about LastPass here. This also makes it sound more credible when you claim that you can’t remember your passwords at the border.

Final Thoughts

And finally, the most important part is that you are aware of the risks when crossing borders. Then you can make the right decisions before you go. It is highly recommended that you study your rights for the country you are visiting before you go. Our views are that the better you can protect yourself with technical solutions, the better, as it can be time consuming to discuss one’s rights at the border and not all will like this. So protect yourself and travel safely.


Has a master in Business Administration and has worked with IT for the last 30 years.
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