Just a few weeks ago, on 30th January 2017, NASA employee Sidd Bikkannavar returned to the US after working away in Chile. He claims that, upon arrival, he was detained by the US Customs and Border Patrol until he shared the password to his smartphone, allowing security access to his personal information. Although it sounds unusual, Bikkannavar isn’t the only traveller to come forward with a similar story.
Whilst it’s true that the Fourth Amendment should protect citizens from ‘unreasonable search and seizure,’ airport security seem to have found certain loopholes. For instance, social media information is not stored on any particular device, but is accessible via data centres across the globe. It could therefore be argued, however questionably, that accessing an individual’s social media is not the same as seizing their belongings. The definition of ‘unreasonable’ is also ambiguous; whether or not a search is ‘reasonable’ is subjective, and could change according to circumstance.
In response to such accounts, there has been a rise in people questioning how they can protect the information on their digital devices – especially their smartphones. It is likely that most people already use passwords or pin codes to keep their smartphones locked to strangers, but there are ways to protect your privacy further. For example, travellers have been advised to disable bots like Siri when their phones are locked, making it more difficult for people to effectively ‘hack’ into the system, and also to encrypt their hard drives. Taking these steps might make it more difficult for security to access your personal data, however accounts such as that of Bikkannavar pose the question – what’s the point in digital security if airports can simply ask for the information on your devices?
It is likely that Bikkannavar, an employee of NASA, had a well-protected phone. Nevertheless, airport security still managed to access his data simply by keeping him detained. If travellers are faced with the threat of detainment, or being denied entry to the country, it’s likely that many of them will share their passwords. This suggests that no matter how well you guard your privacy, it may still be easy – and legal – for the government to snoop through your personal information. Worryingly, it doesn’t stop there. Even if you don’t travel yourself, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your information is off limits. All it takes is for someone you’ve once texted, emailed or connected with on social media to have their digital footprint downloaded before security can access your exchanges. Once security have downloaded your data, it also becomes possible for them to use it to build character profiles in court, perhaps even in completely unrelated cases.
Whether the actions of the US Customs and Border Patrol were justified or not, the conclusion remains the same; even the highest level of encryption is relatively useless if US security can simply ask for the information they want.