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Operational security tips to safeguard your privacy when crossing a border

GeneralEdward Kiledjian1 Comment
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Every week I read about another traveller that is hassled at the border to turn over his laptop, tablet or smartphone and their associated passwords. Knowing that a stranger has gone through your personal “stuff” feels dirty (similar to being robbed).

A question I get asked often by readers, friends and colleagues is “How do I travel through international borders without worrying that my life will be put on show for some stranger with a badge?”. You don’t believe that this can happen; here are some interesting articles:

Operational Security 101

The work of physical security and digital (cyber) security are merging fast and you cannot have one without the other. So what is a traveler to do?

  1. Identify your sensitive data. Before travelling, conduct an extensive analysis of the data you will be crossing the border with. This doesn’t just include intellectual property or employee information but remember that once authorities have access to your email, without you present, they can figure out what social media accounts you have, they can reset your password for any site, they can build a social graph of all your contacts (using your email, instant messages and contacts), etc.

  2. Prepare a lists of vulnerabilities you are subject to? You should consider everything from device theft to authorities riffling through your personal data with no regard for privacy.

  3. Determine your risk level for each vulnerability. As long as you back up your data and your device is encrypted, then your risk after a theft is limited to the cost of replacing your device or scrambling to buy a new one while in transit. You will realize your risk level quickly rises when you consider the exponentially increasing risk of having your device analyzed at the border.

  4. Design your countermeasure plan. For each vulnerability, design a mitigation or risk minimization plan. This is what the rest of the article will talk about.

Countermeasures

Like a broken record, I will now extol the virtues of the Chromebooks and why many security professionals rely solely on these devices when security is essential. I know many of you will email me to explain why Google is evil and shouldn’t be trusted. I respect everyone’s opinion, and if you believe using Google products and services doesn’t meet your security requirements, then, by all means, choose something else.

A Chromebook is designed to be reinitialized anytime and to restore its state very quickly. Log into a device connected to a respectable network, and within minutes, you are back up and running with your apps, extensions, bookmarks and settings. Your data is stored in the cloud, and local device storage is encrypted.

Theft

If some numskull steals your device, you will have to buy a new one but at least your data is safely stored in the cloud, and there is no unencrypted data locally to expose you. I have had my device stolen on a train in Europe (on my way to speak at a conference). At my destination, I bought a Chromebook, used the store's WIFI to restore my device, and I was up and running within 30 minutes.

Border inspection

Border inspection is a different beast because they have the authority to force you to turn over your passwords. In this case, the only protection strategy is trickery.

For people crossing the border with sensitive information, I recommend that you use a Chromebook and sync everything to the cloud. Before travelling, you Powerwash the Chromebook (aka set it back to factory default) and then log into it with a dummy Google account.

This Google account should have some emails, contacts, favourites, files stored on your Google drive, etc. It should look like it is an authentic and genuine account. When your device is inspected, it will have nothing of interest, and you will not endanger your “real” data.

Once you cross the border, find a WIFI network, Powerwash your device and log in with your “real” account.

What about your smartphone

I trust the Chromebook Powerwash process enough to reuse a Chromebook that was inspected by border security but not a smartphone. Smartphones (iPhone or Android) do not have the excellent backup and recovery properties of the Chromebook. In most cases, I travel with a real fully loaded smartphone and will destroy it if it is ever taken from me. I will immediately change all my passwords and implement honeypot style detection tools to see if they attempt to exploit me.

What are these detection techniques I am talking about? Well one example is to use the Free Canary Tokens to generate different honeypots in your work environment.

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As an example, you create an easy to find (weaponized) Word or PDF file (stored in your Google drive) and phone that sends out a beacon when it is opened. Think of these tools as motion sensors warning you that your digital being is at risk and that you need to take extraordinary measures to protect yourself.

Conclusion

An article about traveller airport border crossing security (OPSEC) can be very long, but I wanted to give you a gentle introduction. If you are a journalist, politician or senior executive at risk, hire a good security consultant to guide you. The most expensive advice is free advice.

If you are a journalist with a reputable organization working on high-risk reporting and need security advice, I am always available to provide free guidance. I believe free and open journalism is a pillar of our modern democracy.


New US Border Control rules for Canadians

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment

Since the tightening of US border entry rules, readers have been emailing asking:

What should I do when crossing the USA / Canada border?

Canadian readers (and non-US) travelers to the US wanted to know what the new tighter controls mean when crossing into the US. 

The first important truth most travelers need to accept is that "entering another country is a privilege and not a right". Although the controls may have tightened a bit, they haven't changed materially. Having visited over 40 countries in the last 30 years, I accept the fact that anytime I cross a national border, I am subject to the controls of that country and prepare accordingly.

The cardinal rule of information security is "know your risk". The first step is to determine all your risk factors (status entering that country, data you will be traveling with, travel history, your background, travel risk level of the region you are entering, etc).

Before you leave

  1. Minimize the amount of information you travel with. People often forget the treasure trove of information they carry on a daily basis. Your smartphone (as an example) contains all your contacts, login information for all your social networks, health information, GPS location history, networks you have connected to, etc. Anytime you cross a border (not just the USA but this applies to any national border crossing), the agents are tasked with protecting that county and may "take" any information you are entering the country with to determine your traveler risk. Do not take anything you wouldn't want to hand over.
  2. Minimize the amount of devices you travel with. This may sound stupid but I have seen business travelers cross the border with a personal smartphone, work smartphone, a personal tablet, a work tablet and a work laptop. Understand that anything you enter the country with can be seized or taken  for analysis. With all the Snowden, Vault7, Wikileak dumps, its clear that if a border agent touches your device, you shouldn't use it anymore. You should assume it has been permanently hacked. Where possible, do not bring devices with you. If you do, try to bring "disposable" devices you wouldn't mind throwing away if need be.

What should I do before crossing the border?

  1. Remove all information from your devices that you do not absolutely need to bring with you.
  2. Anything you could need, try to move it to the cloud and securely delete your local copy.
  3. Delete any apps from your smartphone for which you don't want to hand over login credentials to.
  4. If you use a password vault solution synchronized with the cloud, you may want to delete that (Lastpass, 1Password) and reinstall it after you enter the country.
  5. If you use a cloud synchronized 2-factor authentication solution, you may want to delete that (Authy) and reinstall it after you enter the country.
  6. If you can, leave the device at home. If you have a work phone, bring it with you but leave your personal back home.  Instead of bringing a tablet, try to load your content on the smartphone.
  7. If you can, travel with the least complex device possible (chromebook instead of a laptop or tablet instead of a laptop)
  8. Ensure device encryption is turned on.
  9. Turn off your devices before crossing the border.
  10. Switch the unlock mechanism from fingerprint to password based.

At the border

Never lie to a border agent. Never! Ever! Ever!

Any foreigner that refuses to comply with a border agent request (any border not just the USA) will likely be turned away and sent back to their home country. In extreme cases, you can even be bared from entering that country again.

This means that you are "forced" to comply with any request made by the border agent. If asked for your device password, you can provide it and cooperate or defy them. If you defy the request, they will likely take the device and send it for investigation while denying you entry (maybe even keeping you for secondary questioning). Either way, once you "lose control" of your device, you should assume it has been permanently hacked and that a clean re-install will not make it trustworthy again.

They may also ask you for your social media login information. Even if you do not have the app installed on your devices, they know you have an account and can ask for the credentials. Never lie. Refusing to cooperate can cause you to be detained for additional questioning and given an entry ban.

What should I do while crossing the border?

  1. Always be polite and respectful. Remember the agent is doing his/her job.
  2. Never lie. Always be truthful. 
  3. If asked to hand over a device or password, I would do it without putting up a fight. Once you are at the border, you have decided you are engaged and have to cooperate. 

After crossing the border

If your work device was accessed at the border, notify your company information security group immediately. 

If your personal device was accessed, you have to think long and hard about what you want to do. Know that there may be a permanent (un-removable) backdoor or tracker installed on the device. In some cases even a complete factory reset won't remove it. What do you want to do? In the security space, we recommend throwing the device away and buying a new one but this is a personal decision especially with a $1000 smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Also if they accessed your device or asked for your social media login information (username/password), assume they downloaded you social graph (all of your contact info and the contact info of your contacts). I would change all my social media passwords and double check my account information (email address, recovery phrases, telephone numbers, etc). Also notify your network that you lost control of your social media account and to be extra vigilant with requests and the information being shared with you. 

Other recommendations

If you travel to the US regularly, think about applying for a Nexus card (if you are a Canadian). Having a Nexus card means you have been deeply vetted and all of your fingerprints are on file. My experience has been that the Nexus has made crossing into the USA much easier. 

If you are a tech neophyte, take the time to read up on device security and security best practices. The truth is you are solely responsible for your privacy and security.

Best collapsible water bottle

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment

The right gear makes travelling so much better.In 2014, I wrote an article about (my then) favourite foldable water bottle. At the time, it was the best foldable (small form factor) bottle money could buy but recently I discovered a new collapsible water bottle that puts the Vapur to shame. 

Why?

With tighter and tighter airport security screenings, bringing your own water became a taboo. Most people just fork over the $5-7 a bottle and buy it at the airport convenience store but no more. 

What is it?

The Nomader Collapsible water bottle is small, lightweight and easy to carry. Once you pass through all the security checkpoints, you unfold it, fill it and relish the thought that you just saved $5.

The Nomader is a leakproof bottle made of food grade silicone (BPA free) that holds 22 ounces. When fully extended and filled, it feels as close to a solid bottle as a collapsible bottle can.  The Vapur became giggly and you often ended up splashing water on yourself. This was a major complaint I had with the Vapur. 

The other issue with the Vapur is that after 12 months of use, my bottle sometimes leaked water from the top cap. Not so with the Nomader.

Water Filter

If you follow my blog, you have undoubtedly read my undying love for the Grayl water filter and purifier. If not, you should immediately read my post about it here, You can carry both (if going to an area with clean water concerns), and fill the Nomader once you filter the water with The Grayl. These 2 make a wonderful combo for travel.