Crossing the U.S. Border? Here’s How to Securely Wipe Your Computer

Many people crossing the U.S. border are concerned about the amount of power that the government has asserted to search and examine travelers’ possessions, including searching through or copying contents of digital devices, like photos, emails, and browsing history. The frequency of these intrusive practices has been increasing over time.

Some travelers might choose to delete everything on a particular device or disk to ensure that border agents can’t access its contents, no matter what. Our 2017 guide for travelers addressed this option, but did not give detailed advice on how to do it, because we think most travelers won’t consider it their best option. Before embarking on wiping your computers, please read our guide to understand your legal rights at the U.S. border.

We don’t recommend disk wiping as a border crossing security measure for most travelers. It’s a less common data protection technique than the other ones highlighted in our guide, which include encryption and minimizing data that you carry. Wiping your computer will make it unusable to you. Also, it may draw the attention of border agents, since it is unusual for travelers to carry blank devices with them. This may be of particular concern to travelers who are not U.S. citizens, who may receive more scrutiny from border agents. Again, you should consider your risks and security needs carefully before deciding how best to secure your data for border crossings as everyone’s individual risk factors and data security needs are different.

Now that you’ve been sufficiently cautioned, let’s look closely at wiping your computers.

Why Wipe?

Why might you want to want to wipe a disk instead of just deleting individual files, messages, and so on? The main reason is what can happen if a device is seized. Forensic inspection of a seized device with special software tools can recover significant amounts of deleted information and references to individual files and software that have previously…

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