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A new app helps protecting sensitive information from shady border control agents

Posted January 16, 2019

Let us guess – your smartphone is filled with sensitive personal information. It is not even that much of a guess – every smartphone nowadays has conversations, passwords, personal pictures and other data that should not be available to everyone. That is why scientists from the University of Waterloo created a way to protect sensitive information from border control agents.

Smartphones contain a lot of sensitive personal information. Image credit: Victorgrigas via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

You wouldn’t just hand your phone to a complete stranger, would you? Well, that is pretty much what you have to do when border control agents are checking your belongings. Of course, your phone is already protected by a PIN or a password, but in many cases officers convince travellers to unlock their phones even though they do not even have a necessary warrant. In fact, there have been reports about border control agents illegally searching through people’s phones and even seizing information for whatever wrongdoings they had in mind. That is why scientists have created an app, called Shatter Secrets, which allows encrypting the password and splits it into two.

Using Shatter Secrets travellers have to visit people they chose to have a share of the encrypted password and tap devices together. In this way, only authorized people can ever look into your phone and international border security agents have no chance of looking through sensitive personal information without the owner’s consent. If the traveller encrypts his phone just before going through these border control checks and sends part of his password to his destination, he cannot even be compelled to unlock his phone. It simply could not be done without the second part of the password, which would be safely resting in a friend’s pocket. Although Shatter Secrets would be useful to everyone, it is specifically designed for journalists and activists, who have high-value information.

Of course, the drawback is that you have to have someone to send a second part of your password. That person has to be waiting for you on the other side, because you don’t want to be stuck without a working phone. However, it will make travelling just that little bit safer. Ian Goldberg, one of the scientists behind this project, said: “But even persons who don’t cross borders or don’t think they have much to hide should be glad that there is a technique for journalists and activists to protect themselves. The protection of everybody’s civil rights and the protection of democracy hinges upon a free and open press and activists who are willing to push boundaries and effect social improvement”.

Information security is something people should think about more. There are many cases when sensitive data is seized illegally in order to blackmail people into paying these criminals. Simple measures can help you protect your phone. Make sure you have a password set and you use a fingerprint sensor. Also, do not unlock your phone if officers do not have a warrant.

Source: University of Waterloo


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