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In the next months I’m going to travel abroad with my laptop. I’ll visit most of the EU countries, Russia, China, Brazil, U.S. and Canada. I’m an EU citizen.

I was wondering if I could get in trouble for bringing abroad my laptop where I have some sensitive informations encrypted with 4096 bits keys. (File level encryption)

I also have disk level encryption with bitlocker on Windows 10 and sha256 with luks on the Linux /home partition.

I would like to know which is my right to refuse to unlock my laptop whether I’m intimated to do so by a customs officer. As far as I know as an EU citizen in the EU I can refuse to unlock my devices without violating any law.

  • 1
    Since you are looking for legal advice, wouldn't this be more suited for Law.SE? – JoErNanO Nov 13 '17 at 15:17
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    Nearly every iPhone and most Windows machines are fully encrypted and cross borders every day without issues and I'm not aware of any country that outright bans iPhones from coming in. However, Customs can ask to inspect anything crossing it's border. Opening your suitcase and unlocking the device/file are essentially the same thing. If they want to inspect it, you have to either comply, turn around or surrender the item. – Johns-305 Nov 13 '17 at 18:50
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    That’s how stupid mankind can be. I could upload encrypted files in the cloud and cross the borders with the plaintext keys. That’s probably what a criminal would do as they know the law better than lawyers. While an IT professional can’t cross borders bringing its customers sensitive informations without having to undisclose ‘em all? I should really ask a lawyer what I should do because accomplishing to such a customs search would violate almost every contract I have in place with my customers. – Marco Nov 14 '17 at 10:33
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    Note that the informatin you wish to protect is sensitive. "Sensible" means "behaving in a level-headed way." – David Richerby Nov 14 '17 at 20:44
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    @Marco You're thinking too narrowly any may have missed the point about the pending legislation. Yes, it's silly since you can trade BitCoin from multiple devices(mostly ;), but, unlike a bank account, there is no way to recover or confiscate BitCoin without the k/pw so the k/pw becomes the instrument. – Johns-305 Nov 15 '17 at 21:32
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A discussion about what rights you have or don't have isn't a discussion you want to have with a customs officer who barely speaks your language. It takes time and nerves for both you, them and anyone waiting in line behind you. And when you annoy them too much with being a smart-ass about the local search-and-seizure laws, they will see what they can legally do to inconvenience you as much as possible (and maybe even illegally if they know they can get away with it). When it turns out that your rights were indeed violated by the customs officers, then all you can do about it is complain afterwards. That might result in the customs officer getting into trouble, but that won't get you back your time and dignity.

It's really not worth it.

The best way to avoid that trouble is to:

  1. encrypt any sensitive data
  2. upload the encrypted data to a server
  3. delete the data from your device
  4. travel to your destination
  5. show them the clean device at the border
  6. download and decrypt the data
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    I definitely appreciate the practical suggestion about not challenging the customs officers. Though I still feel uncomfortable about all this. Searching my files because they’re crossing borders. While they might ever search a terrorist’s computer they’ll always find it clean, for sure! :@ – Marco Nov 25 '17 at 5:42
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Some countries do have so-called Key Disclosure Laws that can make it a crime to refuse to provide decryption keys. But in most cases there would need to be a criminal investigation or a court order before this can be applied.

All of this varies widely by country, so I suggest you check out Key disclosure law on Wikipedia.

For customs/border checks in particular, they can, in theory, ask for pretty much anything they want; if you refuse, devices may be confiscated and/or you may be denied entry.

Possible duplicate: Do I need to provide PIN or password for my digital accessories, when entering Canada?

  • Thanks a lot for the effort in your reply. Also the Wikipedia resource was very appreciated. So the conclusion is that I shouldn’t cross borders with datas I don’t want to be forced to undisclose! – Marco Nov 14 '17 at 10:35

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