The nature of personal information and data security is changing. One constant threat is non-state actors who will exploit your personal information and data for profit crimes. Another pertinent issue, especially for travelers, journalists, and people traveling internationally for business is how governments view and manage data and surveillance.


cell phone
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

As governments attempt to gain intelligence on criminal and terrorist activity they have turned to various methods of surveillance and monitoring data. In most countries citizens and even non-citizens have a fair amount of privacy rights, one place where this does not exist is at ports of entry. Every country on earth gives its border agents and customs personnel wide legal latitude to detain and search prospective entrants to its country. I want to address some of these issues here as it pertains to travel and personal security.

You Have No Rights

When you enter a country through a port of entry you will encounter several security measures, some visible and some invisible. The agents screening you have broad authority to detain, search, and if necessary, deport you with little justification. Various countries handle this in different ways so I will speak from personal experience on the matter.

Simply possessing a certain passport or an approved visa will not guarantee you immediate admission. Your bags and personal belongings can be searched without a warrant and probable cause is at the discretion of the supervising agents. Courts in most countries have ruled that your personal electronic devices are considered “baggage” and can thus be searched. As a non-citizen if you deny agents access you will likely be denied entry and summarily deported to your originating country (from where your flight or vehicle came from).

There have been several instances where travelers to the United States (mostly journalists) have been detained and forced to give access to their personal devices. Some of these people have been US citizens. At a port of entry, you are not yet in the country you are attempting to enter, expect that all your devices can and will be searched. In the United States these journalists were detained and asked to give access to their devices. Those that refused were detained indefinitely. Border and customs agents will attempt to break the encryption on your devices and failing this you will remain in detention until you grant them access.

What They Are Looking For and What You Can Do

The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has ruled that you must provide this access and you are not afforded any due process or 4th Amendment rights. In the end you will be forced to give access or have your device confiscated. The best bet is to comply with the agents. Your only recourse is to be cautious in what you have on your device. What agents are looking for:

  • Obscene material
  • Evidence of criminal activity or intent
  • Terrorist connections or intent
  • Evidence to suggest you are or will be violating your specific visa


What you can do:

  • Encrypt sensitive data including financial and client data
  • Leave devices at home
  • Bring documentation that you are carrying sensitive client data which is not to be searched


Some governments will simply look at the data to screen it for the types listed above. Some governments may download your data and add it to their matrix of captured data. In the latter case they are typically looking to develop a matrix of contact points to discover hostile networks or persons and their connections to person traveling to the specific country. This may be to monitor and disrupt criminal and terrorist networks but may also be to monitor journalists and NGO’s who are critical of that government.

Biometrics and Inter-governmental Coordination

In some cases, being a citizen may legally prevent the agents from downloading this data, while foreign nationals typically will not enjoy this protection. Almost all developed nations collect biometric data as well, this includes your passport information, photos, fingerprints, dates of birth, etc.… In the United States everyone is photographed on entry, for U.S. citizens this is used to match the biometrics to your passport and the photo is then deleted. Foreign nationals will have these photographs saved on a government database for future reference.

Many of these governments are signatories to agreements that allow them to share this biometric data. For instance, if you are deported from Canada, Australian Border Force will be able to see this information and your biometric data. This allows these countries to screen for dangerous or unwanted persons who may even have an official visa. This data exists regardless of your passport, you can change your passport but not your biometrics.

Remember as you travel that your data is at risk and you need to be aware of this. The rights you assume you have typically are a non-issue at a port of entry. Plan and act accordingly.


Data and Security at the Border

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