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Have you seen the stories about the warrantless devices searches by various border agents?

It seems that many folks have had their cell phones confiscated (sometimes forcibly) in order to protect the borders as people travel into the United States.

Many of the folks subject to these searches are American citizens, some of whom work for the government, as in the case of the NASA employee who was forced to turn over his government-issued phone. We can probably debate all about the First and Fourth Amendments, but this is not about that.

In fact, we could debate the topic, but it would be only for sophomoric fun. Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on behalf of eleven Americans who were subject to such searches. The courts can decide the legality of what is going on.

Part of the search process involves forcing a person to unlock the mobile device in order to “allow” a search of the device.

To counter those types of instances, why not make it easier for us to wipe a device by setting an unlock code, as well as a duress code?

Anyone who has a home alarm system is familiar with the duress code. It works like this: if an intruder forces you to disable your home alarm system, you enter a special code that disables the system but also notifies the monitoring agency that you have used that special code, and they will send help.

How about a phone-wiping duress code?

The idea of phone duress codes is not new. The problem is that the conversation has gone disturbingly silent.

I have seen many comments about the use of duress codes on phones. Bruce Schneier posted a note about the idea earlier this year. Many of the follow-up comments lean towards the idea of an “obstruction of justice” charge for wiping a phone when it is demanded by law enforcement.

Nonetheless, here is how you may avoid that problem: back up your phone.

Most folks back up their phone either to the cloud or to their computer. This keeps your data safe against phone theft or if the phone takes a swim.

Back up your phone before you leave the country and again before you enter the country. If you then use a duress code and you are charged with obstruction of justice, you can be protected by the proper methods of search and seizure (known as a subpoena) if a judge deems that you are truly a “person of interest.” You can then turn over the backup for inspection.

So far, none of those who have been forced to unlock their devices at the border have been charged with any crimes based on the seizure of the devices. It is easy to take the simple approach that you have nothing to hide, therefore, you don’t care about being searched, but that is the topic of another debate.

Phone duress codes – the time has arrived.


Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire, Inc.