If you traveled to the United States in 2016, you were twice as likely to have your electronic devices searched as you were just a year before, in 2015.
That may sound ominous but the chances of an U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent actually powering up your device for a “digital pat-down” were still quite tiny. Of the 390.6 million people who traveled to country, only 19,033 or 0.005 percent actually had their devices inspected, according to the Washington Post.
Still, that was up from the 0.002 percent in 2015, and these searchers were conducted before Donald Trump became president by vowing to increase the screening of anyone who travels to the United States.
Yes, government snooping is on the rise. But for more than 99 percent of us, the biggest threat to our devices comes from other people — strangers and ourselves.
Actual device loss — especially leaving the device behind at a bar or an airport security checkpoint — and theft are the most common digital privacy problems most travelers will experience. This is why you should have a unguessable passcode for all your devices.
The next biggest threat to your data comes whenever you go online. Here are the basics vacationers need to keep in mind when you connect to the internet anywhere:
- Use a reputable Virtual Private Network (VPN) like Freedome to secure your connection on any public or hotel Wi-Fi.
- Don’t let your device connect to public Wi-Fi spots automatically and delete the WiFi access points you’ve used when you arrive home.
- Log out of all your apps you don’t need while traveling.
- Be aware of your surroundings and anyone who could be trying to peek over your shoulder.
- Use a unique, strong password for each account.
- For laptops, disable file sharing and turn on the firewall, setting it to block incoming connections.
- Avoid logging into any of your accounts when using a public computer. If you must make sure you’re using two-factor authentication and refrain from doing any banking, shopping or other financial transactions.
If you’re traveling for business or feel that you may be a target of government scrutiny, you should take additional steps to secure your data, including the drastic step of considering leaving your laptop at home.
Erka Koivunen, F-Secure’s Chief Information Officer, suggests that you consider traveling without your laptop or consider getting a cheap “burner” model you take on the road. Why? Because even before the United States began banning laptop from the cabins of airplanes, there weren’t very many good options for laptop owners.
Stowing your devices in your luggage is an invitation to have them broken or stolen. And once you get into an airport, you’ve surrendered most of your rights. Officials can take a device from your person or luggage and search in any way they choose.
Sean Sullivan, F-Secure Security Advisor, notes that if you must bring your laptop there are some precautions you can take — including encryption and sticking to external or cloud storage.
If you’re extremely concerned about your privacy and need to bring your laptop, you should consider picking up some nail polish before you take off for your trip. Yes, nail polish.
But the best option for privacy-minded travelers, according to Sean, is a burner laptop combined with an iPod Touch, which offers all the apps an iPhone does without the “radio footprint.”
You can also keep your iPod Touch with you all the time, which is really the best tip we can offer for keeping your digital data private.