Recently, the New York Times revealed that for years American customs officials have been intimidating people at the border, coercing them into agreeing to searches of their laptops and phones. This situation has left many of these people feeling “belittled, ashamed, humiliated, and disgraced.” These violations happened under the leadership of Barack Obama. One can assume that this type of behavior will be even further encouraged under the current administration.
Reading this article got me thinking a lot more about getting serious about my online privacy, such as transitioning to an encrypted email service like ProtonMail. What can encrypted email do to help you in a border search situation? Not much, but the fact that you have it might serve to remind you not consent to the search which, under American law, you do not have to do.
[Sure, this will probably cause you to be detained, but it might keep your phone from being searched. And, if everybody who crossed the border refused consent perhaps overzealous border agents wouldn’t have the time to make ridiculous requests. Or at least maybe they’d limit their searches to people who truly are suspicious.]
So why think of email at all when reading about consent searches at the border? Because of this important detail: the only reason that we know about these searches is because the people that they happened to know about them. They were there. They actually watched the government violate their privacy. What about all the times that the government has searched our personal information without us knowing about it?
Not long ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. I have been processing this information with him through Facebook messenger. It’s been a heartrending discussion and I have allowed myself to be vulnerable with him in ways that I would never be comfortable sharing with anyone else.
And so, when I read in the article how one phone was scrutinized by eight different people, I cringed. How many people have read my personal conversation with my friend? I can’t really say. But I can say that since I didn’t send it through an encrypted service like ProtonMail, it’s possible that someone else has, and that thought troubles me. It makes me feel like the people who were subjected to these border searches, who used words like “hurt,” “degrading,” and “demeaning” to describe the experience. “I am distraught and an emotional wreck,” one person said.
And that’s why we all need to care more about our privacy. Because privacy is the armor that protects our dignity. When it’s stripped away and our intimate things become exposed to strangers we really are hurt. It’s an emotional hurt, but it’s a hurt just the same. It is “traumatizing.”
It would be nice if the United States government cared about that, but it doesn’t.
So you have to.