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Travelers are reflected in glass as they line up for security at the international airport in Atlanta, Georgia, March 10, 2016. (AP/David Goldman)

CPJ Safety Advisory: Crossing the US border

December 9, 2016 4:02 PM ET


Journalists traveling to or from the United States have been stopped, questioned and faced prolonged and invasive searches that have put the confidentiality of their sources into question. Over the past year, members of the A Culture of Safety
(ACOS) Alliance, a coalition of news organizations, journalists, and press freedom groups that includes the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, have documented at least seven such instances. In response to these incidents, CPJ's Emergencies Response Team has issued the following advisory for journalists crossing the U.S. border.

As with every border crossing, all journalists should have a plan for basic preparedness prior to travel. As part of this plan, the journalist should make sure a trusted contact (family member, friend or colleague) knows details of the individual's travel plans including route, carrier details, vehicle details and time of arrival. The journalist should also include any other information that may help them if the journalist fails to check-in, or show up. The journalist should leave the contact of a person, when possible a lawyer, who their trusted source should call if the journalist fails to show up.

It is also important for all journalists crossing the U.S. border to be fully aware of their rights, and to know what to expect if they are stopped prior to entering the country whether they are citizens or noncitizens. The American Civil Liberties Union has published general information on what to do when encountering law enforcement at airports and other ports of entry into the U.S., which can be found here. We encourage journalists planning travel to the U.S. to review it.

At the border, anyone looking to enter the U.S. may encounter a range of law enforcement officials, though they are most likely to interact with Customs and Border Protection officers, who may stop and question any individual. If this happens, journalists should politely decline to answer questions about sources and unpublished work.

Journalists should also be aware that law enforcement officials may also search any item at the border. In addition to the journalist cases investigated by CPJ and RSF, the ACLU has documented thousands of cases where border officials have asked individuals to hand over, unlock or decrypt their electronic devices. According to the ACLU, whether individuals are required to provide passwords or to unlock their devices and whether officers have the authority to search or copy files from these devices without reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of wrongdoing are both contested legal issues. In short, there is no clear law that prohibits border officials from asking any individual from handing over their unlocked devices.

In cases when journalists are asked to do so, they should inform the officials that these contain unpublished journalistic work-product and information about their sources. Journalists should clearly state that they have a professional and ethical responsibility to protect this information. Border officials may be sensitive to the request to keep this information confidential but journalists should remember that in the cases documented by CPJ and RSF U.S. border officials have repeatedly ignored this request, continued questioning and even attempted to seize and search electronic devices. Refusal to cooperate with CPB requests has resulted in continued questioning, travel delays and denial of entry into the U.S. for noncitizens.

The best way for journalists travelling across any international border to protect information about contacts, sources, and activities stored in electronic devices such as computers and smartphones is not to carry such devices. Bringing an electronic device to the border places it at risk of being searched, confiscated, or tampered with.

If journalists find it necessary to bring devices with them, CPJ encourages them to follow these steps:

  • Make sure devices are encrypted--encrypt the whole device not just specific files or applications. All devices come with this feature, and it never takes more than a few minutes to switch it on, though Android devices can take a few hours to fully encrypt. For Macs, it's FileVault; Windows has BitLocker; device encryption is available on Android; Chromebooks and iOS devices have full-disk encryption enabled by default.

  • Use a strong PIN or passphrase.

  • Commit passphrase to memory before travel so that you don't have to have it written down with you. If particularly concerned about border crossing, change the passphrases on your devices to something new that you can't remember. Make a note of those passphrases at home and send a copy to a trusted contact you plan to meet as soon as you enter the country. That way you won't be able to unlock or decrypt the devices during the border crossing, no matter what the border agents say.

  • Before you arrive at the border or your port of entry, make sure that your devices are all fully powered down, not just in suspend, sleep, or hibernate modes. This ensures that the only way to access the device is with the passphrase.

CPJ and RSF continue to document these cases of actual or attempted search or seizure of journalistic materials in order to bring them to the attention of appropriate authorities in the U.S. We encourage all journalists who have experienced this situation to reach out to us with additional information. You may do so by emailing [email protected].

For more information on basic preparedness and technology security, we encourage journalists to review CPJ's Journalist Security Guide. For additional information on protecting privacy while crossing the U.S. border, journalists should review "Defending Privacy at the U.S. Border: A Guide for Travelers Carrying Digital Devices" published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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