Surveillance Woes – Privacy Concerns for International Travel

ChatMail   |   April 15, 2023

photo by YuriArcursPeopleimages @envato

Surveillance Woes – Privacy Concerns for International Travel

International travel is on the rise again this year, with Europe and the Middle East seeing flights rebound to levels not seen since 2019. The easing of pandemic restrictions has given many businesses and individuals the confidence to go globe-trotting for conferences, marketing, and long-overdue vacations.

Ever since travel restrictions were lifted at airports and land borders, people have increasingly been put under a microscope when entering countries. The number of phones seized and detained has grown exponentially with 37,000 phones collected by American customs and border patrols in the year ending October 2021. While these requests to access mobile devices by authorities may be news to you, it has been legal for over a decade. This practice puts your privacy and security at risk.

Even when returning home, an Australian recounted his experience when he and his partner returned from a trip to Fiji and had their phones taken away for about half an hour after providing passwords. “They could even have rooted the phone or installed spyware.”

Potentially, in the time they surrendered their phones, the Australian travellers realistically speculated what could have been accessed, including photos, Google services and Gmail history, work emails/calendar, saved passwords, financial account access, contact lists, WhatsApp conversations and SMS messages.

The Canadian government cautions travellers, “Assume that all communications transmitted over public carriers are at risk of being intercepted. Encrypt all sensitive information on your mobile devices before your trip.”

Don’t Pretend You Have Nothing To Hide

The questions raised by this concerned individual are bona fide as are the feelings of having their rights violated. What happens to this data? How is it stored? Who has access to it? Is it shared with other government organizations? Is there a retention policy, or does it live in their system forever?

Your phone may hold critical client data and patented or restricted company information. Journalists keep confidential sources' information in their contact lists. Or you may have made notes on your phone related to private conversations you have had with your doctor. Not everyone has National Secrets, but you don’t want your personally identifiable information indiscriminately shared and possibly breached. If a hacker were to get a hold of this data, they could wreak havoc on your life through identity theft and potentially disastrous financial implications.

When a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent confiscates your phone and uploads the contents into their searchable database the information gets saved for 15 years and is accessible to thousands of CBP employees without a warrant, according to a report in The Washington Post.

“You don't have to have committed a felony to want to keep some parts of your life private from meddling government agents,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, Deputy Project Director of the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “That could be medical diagnoses, mental health struggles, romantic associations, information about our children, you name it.”

Are Those Who Look Different Singled Out More Often?

The phenomenon of remote work has created new phrases like ‘techpats’ to describe those who no longer must work from brick-and-mortar offices, opting instead to telecommute from a foreign country. There are more than 50 nations now offering ‘digital nomad visas’ letting families work abroad where there may be risks to their security at airports and border crossings. With these greater opportunities to visit distant lands comes greater scrutiny at airports and land borders, both for those abroad and when returning home.

We have all heard of racial profiling and harassment of those who stand out from the crowd, and it is a sad reality. This may put people of colour, different cultures, and gender identities at risk of searches.

It took legal action and the assistance of a non-profit organization for a teenage foreign student to be allowed to attend his freshman year at Harvard University. The Lebanon national made news when he was deported upon arrival to the US. After his phone was searched during an inspection by the Boston Airport CBP. He was denied entry because of social media comments his friends made that were considered anti-American.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, visitors to the US have fewer rights than American citizens at airports and borders. To mitigate risks, the EFF recommends several things you can do to protect your privacy when travelling — regardless of where you are from or where you are going.

Measures To Take To Improve Your Privacy

Before your trip, you can choose to reduce the amount of electronic data you carry across the border. Leave your laptop at home if you don’t need it or use a different device for travel. Delete content from your device or upload it to your cloud. Protect the digital information you do bring into the country.

It’s critical to have a backup of your data saved elsewhere. Make sure your device is fully encrypted. Turn off your devices before you arrive at customs or the border. “This will resist a variety of high-tech attacks against encryption that only work when a device is already powered on. For some mobile devices, powering off also resets the device to a higher-security state that requires a password to unlock, which may not be true in day-to-day use.” Having a Faraday bag to carry your phone will make it invisible to any other surveillance, like Stingrays or similar methods of IMEI/IMSI tracking.

Prevention Is Better Than A Cure

ChatMail® takes the guesswork out of your travel by ensuring your privacy. Your mobile communications are locked down and secure with the removal of Bluetooth, GPS, and NFC – a short-range wireless technology that evolved from radio frequency identification. All of these can be used in location tracking, which is why we eliminated them.

Several countries, including Australia and Sweden, can automatically push out trackers to your phone through emergency services — which is one of the OS-level improvements we have made with Renati, our optional proprietary mobile device management for ChatMail (not available through our phones supported by Android for Work on UEM.)

Our international SIMs are data only. It prevents your device from being exploited with malware, phishing, and spyware. You won’t be able to send or receive SMS/MMS text messaging, which can further be used against you when travelling as extractable data.

Web browsing is blocked, as is the use of third-party apps, so you won’t be tempted to use your social media on the go. You don’t want to have anything used against you when travelling through countries with different religious or cultural views than your own.

Having the ability to remotely wipe your device gives you peace of mind since mobile phones are a prime target for theft, especially for business executives or those who may be visiting nightclubs in popular destinations.

ChatMail. Engineered for Security. Designed for Privacy.