Industry Updates


U.S. Customs Searches Have Journalists Stepping Up Their Digital Security

June 5, 2017

By Conor Risch

© Kitra Cahana

Canadian photojournalist Ed Ou, who was turned away from the U.S. border for refusing to unlock his electronic devices for officials.

This past October, Ed Ou, a Canadian photojournalist, was detained and had his devices seized after refusing to unlock them for United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials. Ou was held for several hours, and was eventually denied entry into the U.S. There was also evidence that his devices were tampered with. “Ed’s ordeal is yet another indication that the government is treating the border as an all-purpose dragnet for intelligence gathering,” wrote American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Hugh Handeyside in a story about Ou’s treatment.

Although CBP has since 2009 claimed the right to search and/or seize electronic devices such as mobile phones, laptops and cameras at borders and airports, there is increased concern among journalists and their advocates that CBP will demand access journalists’ electronic devices as they cross into the U.S. Those who comply could be compromising sources, fixers and other associates that they are ethically bound to protect.

As a photojournalist who has worked in authoritarian countries in the Middle East for more than a decade, Ou says the experience has altered his outlook. “I’ve had to think of the world not in terms of places that respect journalists and places that don’t,” Ou told PDN. Now he assumes that his digital data could be compromised anywhere. “The Canadian government requires the same thing,” he says. “This is not just an American issue; this is a global issue.”

© Bryan Denton

Photojournalist Bryan Denton, based in Beirut, uses a “clean” laptop when traveling to the U.S. © Bryan Denton

“I haven’t had any experience with [electronics searches] myself, but it is definitely something that I consider when I travel,” says photojournalist Bryan Denton, a New York Times contributor and U.S. citizen who is based in Beirut, Lebanon. Denton’s wife, Wall Street Journal writer Maria Abi-Habib, does have direct experience with CBP overreach, however. She was traveling with her U.S. passport (she is a dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen) in July 2016 when she was detained and asked to unlock her phones by CBP officials at Los Angeles’s LAX airport. She told CBP that she couldn’t grant their request because the phones belong to the Wall Street Journal, and suggested to officials that they take it up with WSJ’s lawyers. She was eventually released with her phones unsearched. Denton says his wife’s ordeal has been instructive, and suggests he would take a similar tack, referring agents to The New York Times’ in-house counsel if asked to unlock his phones. “The only other place I’ve heard of people being asked for their passwords is in North Korea,” Denton says.

Organizations such as the ACLU, NPPA and Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute are challenging the warrantless search practices, and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is putting political pressure on the Department of Homeland Security, but until laws change, journalists have to take steps to protect their data when crossing borders. Ou also notes that, even if a journalist or citizen isn’t crossing a border or worried about a government attempting to access their data, they should be concerned about security. There are hackers, scammers and others who might steal and exploit your communications, he notes, and digital security should be “as standard and reflexive as locking the door to your home when you leave.” Here are some of the things they can do to protect themselves and their sources.

Encrypt devices

There are different options for encrypting individual files or entire devices, depending on the hardware and operating system you use. Even if you encrypt your devices, however, border agents may still ask you for your passwords. If you refuse to give up your passwords, your devices might be seized and subject to forensic examination.

Encrypt communications

Use encrypted communications apps such as Signal and WhatsApp to communicate with clients, sources and other contacts, contacts, and delete those apps from your phone when you are crossing borders. Also, enable the function that wipes the data from your phone after ten failed login attempts. Even if a device were seized and subjected to forensic examination, it is believed, as of this writing, that these apps will protect their users’ data.

Keep software up to date

It’s important to update the software on your computer or phone because those updates frequently include security patches that address newly discovered threats. Unfortunately this also means upgrading your devices, as manufacturers such as Apple phase out support for older hardware.

Travel with “clean” devices

When he travels to the U.S., Denton carries “a wiped, clean laptop,” he says. “My iCloud account is not on it, everything has to be logged into and it’s all two-step verification.” Wiping a laptop, hard drive or phone means more than simply deleting files. Digital forensics can recover deleted information, so it’s necessary to use secure deletion software or to do a factory reset of a device in order to wipe all traces of files and other data. The trouble with secure deletion, however, is that it also leaves a trace on a computer or phone’s hard drive, which could raise suspicion.

Don’t travel with phones or laptops

Ou notes, “It’s not such a far-fetched thing to travel clean across the border.” Cheap phones and laptops can be purchased for a few hundred dollars once you’ve crossed a border, and then any information you need could be downloaded from the cloud. “If you’re traveling through a border, if you don’t have that information with you, then it just can’t be searched,” Ou says.

This article is part of a larger series of trends and challenges in the photo industry. To read more articles in the series, check out The Ups/Downs of the Year Past and Year Ahead.