Securing my data for international travel II: Aftermath

By Regus Patoff, Anonymous Person

[For Part I, see https://seattleprivacy.org/securing-my-data-for-international-travel/.]

So, I returned alive from my trip and I have much to report. First, I’ll disclose the countries I visited:

  • The United Kingdom.  Despite its legal history of fostering civil liberties, the present-day UK consistently favors perceived national security over free-speech protections. When I travel there, I worry about its key disclosure laws.
  • Russia. Authoritarian kleptocracy, long history of civil repression and, nowadays, rampant public/private corruption. I say all this with affection.
  • Mongolia, a sparsely populated country of 6 million people transitioning from Soviet satellite to non-aligned parliamentary democracy. It’s a strange mix of residual police state and aspiring rust-belt capitalism.
  • China. Economic superpower with global aspirations, and operator of the world’s most comprehensive system of censorship and domestic surveillance.

And let us not forget the United States. The problem with US border crossings is the supposed legality of detaining taciturn, rude, or otherwise suspicious citizens and seizing their electronic devices for study. Think 50 shades of gray coercion, and don’t think about the 4th Amendment.

Border Experiences

Despite all fears going into this, I had no data-related problems at any of the borders. The officials showed no interest in my devices beyond being startled by my over-stuffed electronic organizer bag. The varying protocols for laptops (do take them out, don’t take them out), metal items, shoes, etc., were no weirder or more inconsistent than in the US. Obviously, if I had provoked a secondary screening at any of checkpoints, my experience would have been different.

The single incident of interest was my travel companion’s apparently random interrogation (carried out discreetly in The Small Room) in a provincial Russian airport. The official, in plainclothes, young, smart, ironic, and courtly, with excellent English, was not a normal border goon. He asked the usual border questions (where are you going, what do you do for a living, etc.) along with a strange one: “Have you encountered any other people like me, who ask a lot of questions?”

The final border crossing, back into the US was unusually easy, especially considering the countries newly stamped on my passport. I think that my own attitude (unconcerned, curious) helped matters, and I had the attitude I did because I had prepared carefully. I had rigorously deleted all my data, per the protocol, as I was walking down the jetway. I had resolved not to be provocative or aggressive. Instead, I would be willing to answer questions about the destinations of my travel, even though it’s a verbal game when they ask, since they already know. My companion and I had also agreed that we would refuse to answer any questions about people we visited or traveled with. We found it very calming to have worked out our personal boundaries before crossing the national boundary. We knew what to do. Happily, we didn’t have to do anything.

Censorship, or, Unexpected Annoyances

My border-crossing protocol was to use Google Backups, factory-reset all my Android devices (I carried nothing else) before crossing borders, and then to restore them after entry. This worked fine in the UK and Russia, where I easily found fast and functional Internet connections to download my backups and reinstall my applications, though it was more time-consuming than when testing under more ideal conditions.

China was another matter. The Great Firewall effectively blocks the entire Google mega-system. Sometimes it doesn’t block things outright — it just throttles selected targets so severely that connections time out and fail. I could not access my backups, and I had no access to Google Play, so there was no easy way to restore my non-default apps. Since I carried a T-Mobile SIM card, I had (in theory) uncensored access to the Internet — the Chinese government avoids the bad PR of blocking visitors’ mobile connectivity. Yet with T-Mobile’s degraded (but free!) 2G roaming, it was effectively impossible to download apps over the cell network.

Even in China, there are workarounds, though first there was triage. Signal was the one thing needful, if only to keep in touch with my travel companions. Fortunately, Signal is open-source software, and it has a GitHub.com page, and, apparently, the Great Firewall tolerates GitHub. I was able to download a Signal APK and install it manually. The same approach worked for a few other apps, not always from the most reputable sources.

I learned from this experience that the Great Firewall can be breached by the technically adept, especially by privileged foreigners who suffer no reprisals for visiting inappropriate websites. All in all, China’s censorship regime is a highly effective means of domestic social control. Battling it was not a fun way to spend my vacation.

Buying Connectivity

I had expected T-Mobile’s roaming to meet all my data needs, but with the slow the connection in China, the spotty coverage in Russia, and the expense of data in Mongolia (do not even THINK about using data there), buying local SIM cards was a good idea. In China, the process was alarming. I had to be photographed, and my passport was tied to the SIM, and I had to complete a lengthy form. There was considerable confusion among the staff, but that may be the result of choosing an out-of-the-way cell-phone dealer. It took an hour and cost $20 for a couple of gigabytes of data. It was worth it, though, for the much faster load times, which made reading the news a lot more pleasant. I had to overcome my distaste for Bing, because apparently Microsoft has cut a deal with China’s censors and is freely available. It’s the only choice for most Westerners since China’s Baidu search engine is an entirely Chinese affair.

Though I didn’t use it on my brief visit, WeChat is the one indispensable app in China. Though it started as a social platform, everybody uses it now for wireless payments. This requires a bank card and some ingenuity, I am told.

During a lengthy airport delay in Russia, I bought another SIM card, this time 3 gigabytes for $6, no mugshot, just passport number, all in 5 minutes.

Camera Troubles

My biggest data headache involved my biggest chunk of data — 1000 digital photographs. I did not find a good solution for protecting and exfiltrating this much data. I suppose you could manually encrypt your photos and carry them out, but that doesn’t protect them from confiscation. Uploading is extremely time-consuming and subject to bandwidth availability. I also had the absurd problem of just off-loading the data from the camera using the crap software provided by the manufacturer (Pentax). Next time I will have adapters to allow direct offloading of the memory card to an Android device…where I can remain uncertain what to actually do with the files.

A Lesson About Apps

Restoring the devices after a border crossing took more time than expected, and in China, it was near impossible. Next time, I will keep a stash of useful Android APK installer files I can load without an Internet connection.

It’s not totally easy to find these files, but it’s a lot easier doing it beforehand in the West than from behind the Great Firewall. Nowadays, Google Play deletes an APK package after installation, so you can’t just grab your installed packages like you once could. If you download an APK manually from a website, it should end up in a Download directory in your device storage.

Let’s find some of the applications on my list:

On https://signal.org/android/apk/, Signal rather sensibly displays the following:

Do it anyway — you have special needs, and doing this makes you advanced.

  • K9 Mail

Loads of FLOSS Android apps are hosted on GitHub. You can expect to find APKs there. K-9 mail, at https://github.com/k9mail/k-9/releases, has various APKs for past, current, and future (pre-) releases.

KeePassDroid, the preferred Android implementation of the cross-platform desktop key-manager KeePass, keeps its reference APKs at https://code.google.com/archive/p/keepassdroid/downloads and I guess we have little choice but to trust Google, right?

Orbot is the Android version of Tor developed by the Guardian Project. With Tor, you can browse the Web anonymously. Within limits. Relatively slowly. And though I didn’t try this in China, you can even use Tor to pierce the Great Firewall, which is probably illegal there. You can download the latest Orbot APK directly from https://guardianproject.info/releases/orbot-latest.apk.

Avoid the numerous, random download sites with cute names like “APKsupermarket.com” [not a real site but I’m sure it will be now]. These may inject adware or spyware or outright haXX0я malware into the package and make you very sorry afterwards as you sit in a cell being enhancedly interrogated.