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.

Securing my data for international travel

By Regus Patoff, Anonymous Person

I have a complicated international trip coming up, and I want to protect my private information from border officials. Abroad or in the US, border officials can and do abuse their discretionary power to interrogate travelers, seize electronic devices, demand passwords, and generally inquire into matters unrelated to border safety. This post summarizes my plan. Later I’ll let you know how it went.

 

I’m hard to find online

I started preparing by making my Twitter account anonymous and taking down my personal blog. Now I don’t pop up in Google, so I’m protected from a casual search on my name. It took a full year for my name to fade off of Google, so start this in advance if you want to do it.

I’m not a “target”

I am not important enough to need to worry about state security agencies, and this post isn’t for people who are. . I just want to provide zero information to border guards. All they need to know is that I’m not carrying weapons on a flight, and beyond that, in matters of my heart and mind, they can piss off. My border crossings double as resistance to the erosion of my legal and human rights.

I carry a lot of electronic equipment with me when I travel, though no more that what a typical business traveler might. Basically, a phone, a tablet, and a laptop, though no laptop on this trip . I’m leaving behind many computer services that I need to stay in touch with:

  • A computer server providing websites for myself and others, and also DNS. I need administrative access to that even when traveling.
  • Hidden Tor services that I host.
  • Other various backup services hosted by a major cloud services provider.
  • My personal email hosted by another cloud services provider.
  • A backup email provider, a big one, just in case.
  • My private cloud that I host, full of information that I like to have available all the time and on any device, but which I don’t want to trust to a vendor.

Devices I’m taking along

These are the devices I’ll be carrying:

  • An Android phone (cell and Wi-Fi connectivity, with an add-on SD-card for storage). Serves as a phone, of course, but also as a music player.
  • An Android tablet (Wi-Fi connectivity, with an add-on SD-card for storage). This, with an accessory keyboard and mouse, serves as a full-service computer substitute, an ebook reader, and a mapping+navigation device.

Why Android?

I know that iOS devices are regarded as more secure by the extremely careful and/or extremely threatened. I’m not an Android expert who can improvise my own iOS-equivalent security. However, I am not trying to defend myself against intelligence services at the border, I’m just trying to beat border guards. Stock Android with encryption will work. I prefer Android because I like to tinker, so that’s what I’m taking. Loyal iOS users reading this will have no trouble translating its suggestions into the language of their favorite mobile platform.

I’m also carrying a philosophy

Don’t be a hostage to your stuff. My travel devices are cheap and/or old enough to make losing them to government seizure acceptable. It’s the data that matters.

Sensitive data

My data protection strategy is to keep my sensitive data in the cloud where I can access it when it is safe to do so. My sensitive data in this case includes:

  • Contacts
  • Email
  • Calendar
  • Bookmarks
  • Browser history
  • Passwords
  • Cryptographic keys
  • Photographs

Backups

I’ll be keeping data of this sort in the cloud (private or public) and accessing them through secure connections (HTTPS, SSH) or by secure synchronization services (Android sync, Google Drive, Mozilla sync). I also store configuration profiles for important applications (for example, email) so I don’t have to remember them. I have made several layers of backups for everything, in several locations, including my private cloud and a virtual machine I pay a cloud services provider for. If the sync services fail or I lose my devices, I’ll be able to access my important data from any Internet-connected computer.

Passwords

Passwords are a problem. I use around one hundred strong, random passwords for various websites and services, which means I have to use a password manager to keep track of them. I don’t care much for the hosted password management services, so I run my own and sync its database through my private cloud. My Android devices automatically sync up with my password database.

However, to be truly independent of particular devices and safe from government seizure, I need to carry a few strong but unforgettable passwords in my head. I use one to access my private cloud, where everything important is stored. I have another memorized password for my password database, which is itself encrypted, and one more for my backup email account. In general, the correct-battery-horse-staple (https://xkcd.com/936/) method of password building is the way to go for these master, memorized passwords.

Non-sensitive data

In addition to the sensitive data, I’ll be carrying some relatively bulky, non-sensitive stuff:

  • Music files
  • Map files
  • Ebooks

I’ll keep this data on the external MicroSD cards in each device, unencrypted. I’ll avoid carrying anything controversial. These things are already backed up at home, but are too bulky to sync if I lose them. Worst case scenario, I can’t listen to LCD Soundsystem on the funicular. It’s something of a technical trick, though, to keep sensitive data from being saved to those cards by the ever-helpful Android operating system.

My pilot protocol

Putting all this together, here is my planned device security protocol for before and after entering a country:

  1. Before: Factory reset the devices. Do not begin device setup.[Non-random thought: Will border officials be annoyed to find a factory-reset device? I imagine the Israelis would be annoyed, or the authorities in Urumqi. An alternative would be to set up a false/alternative identity on the device, which would take planning and time. A secondary and very uninteresting Google account would do the trick. However, DO NOT GET CAUGHT LYING TO THE AUTHORITIES. When I was living in {oppressive regime}, I planned my lies very carefully and kept them effectively unfalsifiable.]
  2. After border crossing, set up the devices using Google account credentials.
  3. Choose option to restore from a cloud backup, including apps.
  4. Finish setup, and when prompted, have the device restore all apps.
  5. Retrieve email configuration from the cloud.
  6. Set up SSH keys.
  7. Re-sync browser bookmarks.
  8. Rebuild the home screen, which in my experience is not restored.

Coming soon: How this worked in a “liberal democracy” with draconian security measures, and in an “undemocratic regime” with the same.