These days, you hear more and more reports of travellers being asked to unlock their smartphone and hand it over to officials at borders and airports for inspection. It’s even been reported that the Chinese government installs a surveillance app on visitors’ smartphones.
Whether and how you want to prepare for such a situation depends entirely on your own risk assessment, says the civil rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
Factors you should consider include your travel history and the sensitivity of your data. The EFF offers some tips if you do decide to take precautions:
– Back up your data: Before the trip, back up all data on smartphones, tablets or notebooks that you’re bringing along. This will protect against total data loss if a device is seized.
– Buy a travel phone: This way, you can use a device with little or no sensitive data for the duration of the trip.
– Delete or outsource data: If you are travelling with your regular device, you should delete as much data on it as possible – from emails to documents to your browser history. Alternatively, you can store your data, preferably encrypted, in a cloud service.
– Data hiding is no use: There are apps that can be used to hide documents and pictures on smartphones, and notebook hard drives can be set up with hidden partitions. However, border guards know about these methods.
– Don’t use biometric access locks: Fingerprint, eye and face scanners are convenient but less secure than strong passwords.
– Encrypt: The EFF advises full-disk encryption of your devices. For iPhones, this is done automatically via the password. For Android devices you have to enable it in the settings. Both Windows and Mac laptops also have built-in encryption programmes.
– Switch off: Turn off your devices before you reach the border or control point – this may prevent high-tech attacks.
– No unusual precautions: These can make border guards suspicious, warns the EFF. For example, someone who takes a new or visibly unused phone out of their pocket while keeping their regular device hidden is likely to attract attention and so be even more thoroughly investigated.
– After the border check: If you believe that after the check your devices are being spied on, you should change all your passwords. If you suspect spyware has been installed, you should reset your mobile device to its factory settings or reformat your notebook.