How to react when U.S. law enforcement asks for your password

In the United States, travelers are at risk of exposing their sensitive data. This is because U.S. law enforcement has every right to ask you to provide passwords to unlock your electronic devices at the airport or the border.

If you’re heading to the U.S., there is a possibility of encountering law enforcement officers at your first port of entry. Most travelers will encounter Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), or Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers.

These officers can ask you for your passwords to access your laptop, smartphone, or any other device. In fact, the CBP alone conducted approximately 33,000 warrantless searches of electronic devices last year.

What are your rights?

You can refuse to provide this information, but you have to be ready for the consequences.

For example, your device might be confiscated for an extended period. Or you might have to spend hours answering questions because you refused access to the device.

If you’re not a U.S. citizen, you can also be barred from entering the country!

Even if they don’t suspect any wrongdoing, agency policies allow officers to “manually” search your device. But “reasonable suspicion” is required to conduct a forensic-level search.

Not wanting to share your password doesn’t make you a criminal. Our smartphones and laptops have a wealth of sensitive information.

For example, you might have photographs on your phone that you would like to keep private. Or you might have some to trade secrets on your laptop that you want to keep away from prying eyes.

So it makes sense that people want to keep private information, private!

While the debate about whether this is constitutional or unconstitutional rages on, the government is also attempting to make it mandatory for travelers to not only unlock devices but also share passwords to their social media and email accounts.

What can you do about it?

Give consent to unlock your devices

You can, of course, consent to unlocking your device. But if you do that, make sure that you enter the password manually. If you write your password down, it’ll probably find its way into a government database (so if you did write it down, change it ASAP).

If you refuse to unlock your device and the CBP seizes it, make sure to obtain a detailed receipt and the name and badge number of the officer who took it. Devices that have been confiscated for a forensic search will be returned as long as there’s no probable cause of evidence of a crime.

If they download all the data from your device, the information will be destroyed within three weeks.

But what if you have stuff (like pictures) that you don’t want anyone one else to see?

To minimize the impact of having your devices searched, there are certain steps you can take to maintain privacy. For example, you can carry just one device with as little data as possible when you travel.

Carry a travel phone or laptop

This can be difficult for many, but it does help. If you’re not traveling on business, it will make sense to carry a dedicated travel phone or laptop with a minimum amount of data. However, all travel devices and accounts must be encrypted and password protected to keep them out.

Move your data to the cloud

Moving your data to the cloud is the best approach to maintain security and privacy. But if you choose to do this, make sure that you don’t store any sensitive information on your memory cards, USBs, or hard drives (because they can also be searched).

You also have to also disconnect all apps that are connected to your cloud accounts. At present, CBP policy states that information that’s only accessible via the internet and cloud data won’t be searched.

So what does that mean?

This means that your photos and emails with trade secrets which aren’t physically stored on your devices will remain private and secure (if you need help with moving your information safely on to the cloud, we can help!). 

If you have to travel with sensitive business data on your devices, let the officers know that you’re carrying privileged information before unlocking your device. Whenever this is the case, the CBP will be required to follow specific legal protocols.

No matter what approach you choose to go ahead with, make sure that you always remain calm when dealing with law enforcement.

Click here to learn more about encryption and security on the cloud.



to top