Stop Fabricating Travel Security Advice

Advice that includes lying to federal officers is worse than useless

Recently travel to the US has become even more stressful as CBP have been more aggressively exercising their authority to examine digital devices. Their theory goes something like “we can open a cargo container to check whats inside therefore we can open a digital device to check whats inside.” Along with the apparent increase in searching traveller’s laptops and phones, there has been a rise in amateur smuggling suggestions (seemingly by US citizens who aren’t exposed to any risk at the border.) This advice is terrible, dangerous and possibly endangers anyone reckless enough to follow it.

Fantasyland Security Advice

Rather than collecting the garbage advice, I’ll bundle it all into a generic set of terrible ideas and the flawed beliefs that underpin them. To be absolutely crystal clear — DO NOT DO THESE THINGS!

Pretty much each technique suggested here will get you additional screening, more hassle, further scrutiny, possibly criminal charges, and potentially deported. As a rule, CBP officers are bored and grumpy, their only excitement is fucking up someone’s day. Most of these suggestions are ways of attracting their attention and giving them an excuse to exercise their power for some excitement. The exact opposite of what you want.

Remember, all of these ideas are terrible and bad and no one should ever follow them, particularly if they have a reason to avoid scrutiny.

0% battery means 0% hassle

Theory: A device that is out of juice is basically a “get out of being examined free” card. Because you can’t turn it on for the CBP officer to examine, they will accept that it can’t be be examined.

If the officer demands that you turn on your device but the battery is dead then it mean that you are unable to comply. Ah ha! A clever loophole that no one has ever thought of before.

Praxis: The best case scenario here is that you only have to charge your device and re join the queue.

Carry wiped/blank devices

Theory: completely wipe your device before traveling across the border. This way when the CBP attempt to examine it, they’ll see only a factory reset blank device. The CBP officer will gnash their teeth at your clever trick of having absolutely no data on your device and let you through for out smarting them.

CBP can’t find what isn’t there! Ha, no one can anticipate that. Because it is normal for people to travel with blank devices, in no way will the CBP officer suspect that you have something to hide.

Praxis: If you’re lucky, maybe they’ll let you keep your equipment rather than confiscate it for a full forensic examination. A wiped device indicates that you are deliberately hiding something from CBP, who will want to know what it is.

Carrying no devices

Theory: Travel without any devices at all. Showing up with no electronics is a completely normal thing in 2017. The CBP officer will think that you are just a simple person who is stuck in 1980 and let you through without any hassle at all.

The CBP officers can’t search what you don’t have! Genius. Going so far to demonstrate that you are keeping secrets is a great way to antagonise CBP. Maybe you’ll be lucky and not interrogated for hours. Or maybe they’ll just deport you immediately.

Praxis: People who don’t own laptops, tablets and/or smartphones yet travel internationally don’t exist anymore. If you are completely naked of any digital devices but aren’t 2 or 80 years old, then you are extremely anomalous. Most probably someone that should be interviewed by secondary CBP screening…

Lying to professionals trained to detect liars

Theory: You, a person who is not trained to be a professional liar, will engage in a battle of wits against people who are professionals trained to detect liars. They do this all day, every day, for years. You do it for the first time. Oh, also, you’re committing a felony, so don’t get caught.

Human beings are not good at lying. Learning how to lie effectively and convincingly is a difficult task because for some unknown reason the human mind is wired to make you bad at it. Detecting lies by amateurs is fairly simple. For example, have them repeat the story over and over again and keep detailed notes (people tend to forget the lies they’ve told after about 20 minutes, so the details will change.) Have them describe the story in reverse chronological order (lies are harder to keep straight when they’re told backwards.) There are other tricks, but you should get the general idea. Surviving an interrogation by a trained professional is something that requires training and practice (it can be done though!)

Praxis: Do not lie to Federal officers. It is a felony. When you are caught lying to CBP your chances of crossing the border drop dramatically, except maybe they might let you in so you can be charged and go to jail. Do not do this.

Refuse to cooperate

Theory: If there is a technical control which prohibits cooperation with the CBP requests to access your digital devices, then they will allow that technical control to override their legal authority. This is pretty much the same reason that TSA respects a locked suitcase “oh noes! we can’t open it, better let it go.”

Usually phrased as “I don’t know my password it is in a password manager which I can’t access.” Or, “there is 2FA setup and I don’t have my second factor.” Or other similar technicality. This approach seems to be based on the belief that the password itself is the ultimate goal of the system, when it has been clearly stated that the goal is access to the content of the digital device or the social media account as a requirement for entry into the US.

Although collecting passwords and linking them to people’s profiles does apparently happen, this is just the natural operation of a security apparatus at work — always collecting more data.

Praxis: Federal officers have great respect for 2FA and password managers stymieing their lawful requests. If you luck out, maybe they’ll decide that confiscating all your electronics is punitive enough. Most likely though, they will detain you until you comply with their demands, or they will bounce you.

In Conclusion, Stop Giving Terrible Advice

Much as “I Am Not A Lawyer” (IANAL) is usually followed by terrible legal advice. All of the advice above should preceded by “I Know Nothing About OPSEC” (IGNORE.) Do not lie to federal officers. Do not attract attention. Do not act entitled or otherwise give bored grumpy people an excuse to entertain themselves by making your life miserable.

Good travel advice to follow in a later post…