*Protecting your private data while traveling through airports and customs stations

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The most intrusive experience business travelers used to face at airport security was a possible TSA pat-down, or a customs check of luggage. These days, domestic and border control agents are searching passengers’ phones, tablets and laptops for … well, anything they want to see. Your compliance with the request grants them access to documents, emails, passwords, contacts and social media account information. So travelers carrying confidential or privileged corporate information (in addition to the merely personal) need to take steps ahead of time to ensure that private data stays private.

The laws around data privacy at airports and customs checkpoints are murky, and border control officers in the U.S. and elsewhere have been making full use of the allowable gray areas, asking travelers to turn over email logins and social media passwords, searching devices and making forensic copies of data. If this concerns you and your company, these tips could prove useful. While legal issues vary by country, most of these suggestions will provide a measure of data security in a variety of situations.

While most business travelers are still using Windows 7, the move to switch to Windows 10 is slowly moving on. So these suggestions are meant to cover both Windows 7 and 10. If you are traveling with a corporate laptop, you may need to coordinate with your IT staff to determine which options are appropriate and available to you.

  1. Turn off your device

The first and easiest step — this applies to all devices, not just Windows — is to make certain that all electronic devices are powered down completely before you get to the border. The two main reasons to do so: In some cases, the legal bar is higher to ask a traveler to turn on a device that is off than it is to simply wake one from standby or sleep mode. It may seem an odd distinction, but it has proved a critical one in some cases. The second, more compelling reason to power down your Windows devices is that if you have encrypted some or all of your laptop drive (see details below), most encryption mechanisms provide far better security from data searches if the encrypted device is off. This won’t help you if you comply with a request to power on and log into your device, but some of the steps described below will help in those scenarios as well.

  1. Require a passcode

Always require a passcode to access your device, and make sure the passcode is required by default anytime your laptop is powered on, or awakened from sleep. If you have disabled the requirement to enter a passcode at startup, re-enable it.

Next, make sure that your laptop requires a password upon wake from sleep. For Windows 7, the option to turn this on is still under Power Options.

For Windows 10, this option used to be in the Power Options window in the Control Panel, but for current versions it can be found in the Settings application. Go to Settings > Accounts > Sign-in options, and make sure the answer to the “If you have been away, when should Windows require you to sign in again?” dropdown selection is “When PC wakes up from sleep.” There’s more complete information here.

It is also potentially a good idea to turn off the ability to use Cortana while your device is locked. As of the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, you may find that Cortana is enabled by default on your lock screen, no matter what your previous settings were. This option can be found under Settings > Use Cortana even when my device is locked (with more info here).

  1. Clean out your browser cache

For Windows 7, the option to turn this on is still under Power Options.

For Chrome, enter Chrome and from the browser toolbar select Menu > More Tools > Clear Browsing Data, select the checkboxes for all data you want to delete, choose “Beginning of time” to delete everything, and select “Clear browsing data.” More detailed information from Google can be found here.

For Firefox users, the current version of Firefox has a handy “Forget” button you can set up for easy use. But you can also go through and delete your cache and other saved information in the same way as the other browsers, from the Menu button > History > Clear Recent History. Select the type of information and date range, and select Clear Now. More info here.

Finally, if you are one of the few that trusts Microsoft Edge, this option is found under Hub > History, then select “Clear all history,” select the types of data you want to delete, and choose “Clear.” You can also delete your browsing history from Cortana by selecting “Change what Microsoft Edge knows about me in the cloud,” and “Clear browsing history.” (More details here.)

  1. Encrypt your data

This security option can protect you not only from having information taken and used if your laptop is stolen, but also to some extent from having data on your hard drive easily copied when crossing the border. If you want truly secure encryption, there are third-party options — however, the built-in Windows BitLocker feature protects your data from most access attempts and is a good option to enable when traveling.

Unfortunately, the built-in encryption situation with Windows can be awkward and confusing. Even if you are an advance computer user, I highly suggest you get training from your IT department or a team IT coach to learn how to do this effectively.

Note: BitLocker encryption is only available on Windows 10 Pro, Education and Enterprise editions. And for Windows 7, you must be using Windows 7 Enterprise or Ultimate. If you have the Home edition of either, you’ll need to upgrade to use BitLocker, or use a third party encryption application.

In general, Windows 10 provides improved protection with BitLocker compared to Windows 7, and is easier to set up. In addition, some Windows 10 devices (and even some running Windows 8.1) come with full-drive encryption turned on by default, so if you have a newer computer that came with Windows 10 Professional or Enterprise pre-loaded, BitLocker may already be active. Some info and caveats about BitLocker, and Windows encryption in general, can be found here.

The first thing to do is make a full backup first — just in case. Then, all you need to do is go into Windows Explorer, right-click the target drive and select the option, “Turn on BitLocker.” You then select a password, enable and save a recovery key (in case you lose or forget your password — otherwise, your data could be forever inaccessible), and select Encrypt entire drive. You will want to do this with your laptop fully charged and plugged in, and be forewarned — this can take a while. You do want to make sure your laptop does not crash in the middle of encryption, so it’s best not to allow the process to be interrupted once it begins.

Step-by-step instructions can be found here, and a much more detailed overview about BitLocker under both Windows 10 and Windows 7 is available here.

While an encrypted drive is more secure, if you are asked at border control to log into your laptop and hand it over, and you comply, your encrypted drive is now unlocked and open for access. Keep any truly critical, proprietary or confidential information stored on an external USB and keep the drive separate from the computer while traveling. That way, the only data on the local drive is information that you (and your company) don’t mind being seen.

If you have Microsoft Office files on your computer, you can individually encrypt them within Office using the Office “Protect Document” feature, and if you have BitLocker enabled, any file or folder can be individually encrypted. Even if you have device/drive encryption turned on, a separate encryption of critical files provides another layer of defense against unauthorized access.

  1. Remove or pare back on email retention and social media 

Speaking of data access, consider whether you are comfortable having airport TSA or border control staff view all of your contacts, emails and social media accounts, because they have the ability to request access to those as well — and sometimes do. One option is to remove all social media apps and browser bookmarks from your laptop before travel. (You will want to do the same for any iOS or Android devices.)

A second option is to create secondary accounts, containing only information needed for traveling, with no secure or confidential data. Alternative social media accounts are easy to create, and having a travel-only email account (with forwarding, as necessary, from existing accounts) is a quick task to set up on Outlook.com or Gmail. This also avoids the common problem of having proprietary information saved as email attachments in old emails that you may not even realize you have. If you keep a “clean” email account used only for traveling and wipe it after every trip, you can significantly reduce your exposure to releasing confidential data at the border or elsewhere on the road. If you want to take it one step further, create a new “travel only” Microsoft account, using a new email address created in Gmail or Outlook.com (and do not use the same password as your primary account).

You can then pare down your contacts list and calendars, if you have any that are considered confidential. Contacts can be selected and exported from Outlook.com or the Outlook desktop client, and imported into the new account as needed. Selected calendars can be shared between accounts for Outlook.

Be Safe – Backup Your Data Regularly!

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