It’s time for a border mode on smartphones

With searches exploding, Apple and Google need to make it easier to erase and restore data.

border mode

Phone Border Mode:

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It’s pretty clear that U.S. border guards are getting out of hand, if the staggering increase in the number of phone searches is any indication.

As NBC News reports, the number of phones searched in 2016 exploded to 25,000 from just 5,000 a year earlier. This year is going to make 2016 look lame in comparison, with 5,000 searches happening in February alone, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security.

While border guards are evidently emboldened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempts at instituting a Muslim ban, it’s important to note that the dramatic increase was happening before he was elected.

It’s also important to note that authorities need a warrant to search phones in the United States, although not necessarily at border crossings. The Constitution, as TechDirt suggests, doesn’t apply in such places.

As NBC reports:

DHS has published more than two dozen reports detailing its extensive technological capability to forensically extract data from mobile devices, regardless of password protection on most Apple and Android phones. The reports document its proven ability to access deleted call logs, videos, photos, and emails to name a few, in addition to the Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram apps.

Caught in this dragnet are “businessmen, couples, senior citizens, and families with young kids.”

Given all this, it’s high time for Apple and Google to engineer a “border mode” into their respective operating systems.

Similar to airplane mode, such a setting could ease the copying of all the user’s pertinent data and apps into the cloud, then delete it all from the device before crossing the border. A simple tap or two on the other side could then easily restore all the information.

It’s possible to do much of this already with a hard factory reset, but that requires several steps and can take a long time to do.

On the other hand, it shouldn’t be too hard for companies with the resources of Apple and Google to create a simple and faster shortcut that could also stand up to forensic searches.

If border guards are going to make innocent travellers’ lives difficult, there’s no reason innocent travellers – with a little help from phone makers – shouldn’t return the favour.

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4 Comments on It’s time for a border mode on smartphones

  1. Except when they decide that a blank phone is itself suspicious, and make your life miserable anyway. Or demand passwords for your cloud accounts. They are already talking about requiring passwords for social media accounts, so it’s no stretch to imagine it.

    • Peter Nowak // March 15, 2017 at 12:31 pm // Reply

      Good points – both situations raise interesting questions. There’s an argument to be made that border guards can search whatever you have on your person, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a warrant is otherwise necessary to search a phone. Info that you have on the cloud, sitting on a server somewhere far away, would definitely not qualify as “on your person.” I’m guessing courts would quickly quash any such efforts. As for blank phones being suspicious… well, that would be a ludicrous argument. Is a suitcase devoid of weapons suspicious?

      • I do not share your optimism, at least in the short term. It used to be ludicrous to contemplate that having a ‘scary’ skin color would be enough to get you detained/turned away, but here we are. What US border agents find suspicious is now…well…suspicious. And it is already a fact that the US constitution does not apply at border crossings. I really hope you are right.

  2. I mostly agree with you that it would be the easiest way to make people adopt a “blank phone at the border” stance, but the technological means to do this is already there, it just isn’t directly provided by your smart phone manufacturer.

    I don’t necessarily want to punt this back to consumers, but at the end of the day, consumers need to want this, need to know it’s possible and need to demand it from manufacturers.

    If I were in the prediction business I’d say it’s coming an another 1-2 years.

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