New or old, accountant, doctor, lawyer, or other professional, you are going to have confidential documents on either your personal or business electronic devices. You may have a duty to your clients or employer to keep those documents confidential. Unfortunately, whenever you travel across an international border, you potentially subject your devices to a full search, possibly breaching your duty of confidentiality.
This is a post by Avery. Avery is a special guest contributor from www.dcta.ca, (Don’t Call the Airline!) He specializes in Canadian travel hacking, and has flown all over the world in First Class and on questionably safe airlines to questionable destinations.
With many professions, you may be bound to inform your client or employer, and/or face legal repercussions, if confidential information in your care is revealed. This remains true even if it was a lawful search, such as the type you experience at the border. By following the tips below, you secure yourself from revealing confidential files during an electronics search at the border.
Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and transport a “Clean Computer”
A virtual private network (VPN) allows individuals to access information securely over the Internet. Many employers offer VPN services, or you can purchase them for relatively cheap. You would delete all your confidential files from the computer or cellphone that you are taking over the border, and load them onto your VPN. If a search is conducted, nothing will be found and confidentiality will be kept. Once you are clear of the border, you can access the VPN and download your confidential files and store them back on your device. Before you cross another border, repeat the process of deleting and storing your confidential files.
Having a VPN also acts as a secure back up in case your device is seized at the border. Not only will your confidential files be safe from prying eyes, but you can continue working at your destination with a new device.
Another similar method is to use a “Cloud” service, like Google Drive. Although your files will be protected from border officials, these services are rarely encrypted, and you may face other confidentiality concerns if the Cloud service provider can access your information.
Create a hidden and encrypted hard drive partition
If accessing a VPN is not available and you need to store your confidential files locally, there are tools and services available that create a hidden and encrypted partition on your hard drive.
A partition is a virtual secondary hard drive. That is, you are creating a secondary hard drive within your primary hard drive, and then encrypting the information on it. Think of it like a USB Key within your computer.
Once encrypted, it becomes harder for border official to decrypt the information. You can make the hard drive hidden, making it even harder for them to find the information on it.
Although this is a fairly secure method to protect your confidential information, it does present some problems. First, you may be legally obligated to comply with all border official orders, and/or to be completely truthful. If ordered to access those files, or to decrypt them, your confidential files will be under risk. Although this method affords better protection than nothing, it is still risky to your files, and I would recommend using a VPN if you can.
Make sure you turn your computer off before arriving at the border
All computers have a memory storage device called Random Access Memory (RAM). RAM stores information while your computer is on, and after it is powered down, the information is deleted. However, the information on RAM can last for a couple minutes after being powered down. If the computer is turned on within that time frame, it is possible that information located on the RAM from the previous session can be accessed. By turning off your computer a couple minutes before arriving at the border, say 5-10 minutes, that RAM will be clean. The same thing applies to cellphones.
Disable your FireWire Port
A FireWire port, similar to a USB port, is located on most modern computers, especially on Macs. Using this port, it is very easy for border officials to copy the entire contents of your hard drive. You can disable that port, and make it more challenging for border officials to copy your hard drive. To disable your Fire Wire port, contact your IT Department.
It is unlikely that you will face an invasive search of your electronic devices. However, many professionals have a duty to do the utmost to protect confidential files, and may face severe repercussions if they do not either protect the files or there is a breach of confidentiality. It is wise to protect your confidential files in the face of a possible border search.
Many professional associations, such as Bar Associations and Medical Boards, have experience and information on how you can best protect your confidential files when crossing an international border. If you are unsure, always contact them for help.