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Safe Travels

International and Domestic Travel Tips

We Travel. It's part of the job as activists and as workers. We all know that travel has changed a great deal over the years after 911. As recent as May of 2017, its gotten tricky to cross borders at countries as well as within the country. Increased surveillance of social media and the closing of platforms, the neverending anti-trafficking rhetoric that pervades the world view and the very simple and pervasive manner in which people of color and trans women in particular experience travel into and within the US, are all factors that make travel conflicts, delays and the potential for “additional screening” makes our anxiety high and leads to flat out terrifying experiences. There is nothing quite so disconcerting as being pulled aside to have your luggage pilfered through by a TSA or customs agent while you are trying to decide if this is the result of something you packed or if it really is just these folks “doing their job”.

Technology has had significant changes that have increased Artificial Intelligence surveillance and while the accuracy of facial recognition has gotten better, or worse in some cases, there are a lot of places you might not even know it was happening.

There are some things you can do to minimize the impact of these situations and the likelihood you might draw attention from airport officials, immigration and customs officers.

First and foremost - be aware that airport properties have different legal statuses than if you were just tooling around your neighborhood. Police officers who work for local jurisdictions need probable cause to search someone on the street, but the Supreme Court has ruled that no such suspicion is necessary for a search at the border, including international airports, which courts have ruled to be the equivalent of a border (United States v. Ramsey, 1977). Even within the US - TSA has the right to search your cell phone. At least two intermediate appellate courts have upheld the government's position that searches of electronic devices fall under the standard for suspicionless property searches at the international border (United States v. Arnold, 2007). Under this position, the government asserts that it can open, access (via login or password), and search through all electronic information stored on travelers' electronic devices. CBP officers may also make copies of the files contained therein or may confiscate the electronic device for further study; they must return the items and provide a receipt for identification of items.

You are not governed by state law until you have exited the airport property.

Facial Recognition software is being utilized in airports in the US and many regional airports as well. As of May 2023, Facial Recognition technology is currently in 16 airports for domestic travelers and it is used at nearly all International Airports where travelers are entering the United States from another country. In addition to Baltimore, it’s being used at Reagan National near Washington, D.C., airports in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Jose, and Gulfport-Biloxi and Jackson in Mississippi. However, it’s not at every TSA checkpoint so not every traveler going through those airports would necessarily experience it. Travelers put their driver’s license into a slot that reads the card or place their passport photo against a card reader. Then they look at a camera on a screen about the size of an iPad, which captures their image and compares it to their ID. The technology is both checking to make sure the people at the airport match the ID they present and that the identification is in fact real. A TSA officer is still there and signs off on the screening.

We are all suspicious of the accuracy of this technology and it raises all kinds of privacy concerns but here are a few ways you can minimize your personal risk.

  1. NEVER, EVER say you’re going for work and at the risk of stating the obvious, NEVER say you are a sex worker.

    • Entering the USA with the intention of working while you are here on a visitor VISA is going to cause you problems.

    • This includes phone sex operator, stripper, cam model, etc. Even just “model” will make them want to know more, so try to avoid it. They tend to assume sex workers don’t take vacations and only travel for work.

    • Even if you make US dollars in your home country, it’s a problem for them if you make US money on their soil, and grounds for denial and deportation.

  2. Make sure you know the address and name of the person you are staying with. You will have already had to complete this information to complete the 9 page form to get a travel VISA and although they make this documentation available on an app, just print it out and have it ready for the customs agent. This information is going to be a part of your flight record so make sure you have the details available on demand.

  3. Answer questions with as few words as possible and resist the temptation to start talking without a direct question. This goes for coming into and leaving the country.

Technology is a blessing and a curse.

Cell phones - particularly smartphones - are a part of everyday life and they store an enormous amount of information on them. When traveling, follow some simple rules that can make sure there will be very little to look at should you be pulled aside for questioning.

At the very least - Delete social media apps on your work phone before entering airport property. Turn it off and stow it in your luggage. Make it a practice to delete text messages from your phone regularly. Even deleting these apps and isn’t a sure fire way to make sure they are gone and get stored in a mysterious cloud somewhere. Text messages sent and received from your smartphone are backed up by your cell service provider and can be accessed by law enforcement with a warrant for up to 45 days - some companies make this information available for up to a year. Of course you can use messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp but you should still delete these smartphone applications upon entry to any country. Be particularly mindful of smart phone activity that might indicate you were entering to work as a sex worker such as communication with clients via text or email messages.

  1. Back up your laptop to an external hard drive and keep the laptop as “clean” as possible. Keep the external hard drive in a different location that your laptop in your luggage.

Once you are in the USA, Smart phone technology that allows you to open and unlock them using a fingerprint or facial recognition is considered PASSIVE CONSENT and Law Enforcement can legally force you to open them using your fingerprint or facial recognition. A passcode that is known only to you is the only way to keep Law Enforcement from accessing the data on your phone. If you are detained or arrested, Law Enforcement CAN KEEP your phone whether you give them the passcode or not.

  1. If you want to really be extra cautious, carry your personal phone AND a work phone. This is a common business practice and carrying two phones will not raise any additional attention in and of itself.

  2. Upgrade your safe movement between border crossings by backing up your phone to a “cloud” before you leave for your trip and reset the phone to factory settings. Once you are off the airport property, you can turn the phone on and download your original configurations from the cloud.

  3. Many people simply change sim cards when they enter another country and this is such common practice, it won’t raise any eyebrows. Since cell phone providers vary greatly from country to country and even state to state - having a blank sim card on your person or in your cell phone won’t draw undue attention. You can always put one with data back in once you are off of airport property.

Here are some additional links and information about how to stay as invisible as possible when traveling domestically or internationally!

How long does your mobile phone provider store data for law enforcement access?

Avoid These 20 Ways of Getting Flagged at Customs

Can the Police Look at My Cell Phone?

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