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CUSTOMS ISSUES

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DON'T GET INTO TROUBLE AT BORDERS

Many people who travel overseas for the first time often get caught out by foreign Immigration and Customs authorities because they did not fully understand the legal requirements when entering other countries. This can cost travellers very dearly and even result in them being arrested. Even seasoned travellers coming to Australia often bring in items that are prohibited, or they are stupid enough to try and smuggle in drugs and other illegal goods. It is staggering to see people, mainly from Asia and the Middle East, bringing in mountains of food that is mostly prohibited under Australian quarantine laws, as if such food is unavailable. In fact Australians can purchase literally any Asian or Arabic food in most supermarkets and Asian groceries.

Just as importantly, travellers need to realise these days that what they have on their electronic devices is also subject to Customs examination when entering foreign nations and also when coming to Australia. Citizens of Australia are not exempt from their devices being searched upon their return and many Australians have been caught with illegal pornography and other prohibited items on their computers and smartphones and some have been jailed.

GOING THROUGH FOREIGN CUSTOMS

Customs and immigration services in all countries have very formidable powers. They can demand that you unlock your smartphone or computer and trawl through its contents and you can be arrested and jailed if you refuse to do so. If they find anything untoward, like pornography, dog fighting or anything that may be illegal in their country, even if it is completely legal in your country, they can confiscate and destroy your smartphone or computer and hit you with a large fine or even arrest and jail you.

There is one very simple remedy that will keep you and your equipment safe. Before you embark on your trip with your notebook computer and your smartphone, check the entire contents and make sure that anything that could remotely be construed by any nation's Customs as being offensive, illegal or even obnoxious is removed. Not just deleted, but wiped from the computer's recycle bin, so that it cannot be recovered. Don't retain any content that could cause you the slightest problem.

THERE ARE NO BORDERS WITH THE INTERNET

Deleting files from your notebook computer or your smartphone doesn't mean that you cannot access your sensitive files. All you need to do is to set up a Cloud storage account or a Network Addressed Storage (NAS) device that is connected to the Internet. Put your sensitive files on it and when you need them, download them to your computer and smartphone, once you have passed through Customs and are clear.

Do not take any paper documents with you that could compromise you in any way. It is amazing how many people who go to nations on tourist visas that prohibit them from working there will have documents of their qualifications and even emails with job details in those nations. Why would they need to carry such documents and emails if they are in those nations purely for vacations? Customs virtually always kick such people out on the spot.

But there are always methods to deal with these situations. If you are going to look around for work in that foreign nation and you don't have a work visa, don't carry anything that could point to this activity. Make sure that your browser is in 'incognito' mode, so that it does not store any details of where you have browsed. Don't carry any compromising documents such as qualifications. You can store them on a remote server and download them to show to a prospective employer.

Of course you should never put a reference or the web address and log-on details for that remote storage on any of your equipment and never disclose this to foreign Customs or anybody else. You are not required to tell anybody about files, data or anything else that is not in your physical possession. If it is not written anywhere, then they would have to be clairvoyants to find out about it - and of course they are not. That way, no Customs officials will be any the wiser, even if they thoroughly examine your computer or smartphone.

With the Internet, there are no borders when it comes to data. Customs can arrest you for having illegal content on your smartphone or computer when entering a nation, yet if you wipe that content from your devices, all that content can still be instantly retrieved from your Internet Cloud storage or NAS device in an instant, once you have crossed the border. A savvy traveller can access literally anything whenever he can get onto the Internet. If Customs asks you whether you have data stored in the Cloud or on any remote storage, just tell them that you won't even answer that question, as this is totally outside their jurisdiction.

MEMORY CARDS

If you prefer to have your data at your disposal at all times and you feel confident, you can keep your sensitive files on a microSD card. You might need to do this in places where the Internet is sporadic or unavailable. These microSD memory cards are very tiny, literally the size of a thumbnail and not much thicker. They can be concealed almost anywhere and would be highly unlikely to trigger a metal detector. For higher security, you should encrypt the entire contents of the microSD card or even make the contents invisible, which can be done under Windows.

Sandisk 1 Terabyte microSD Card
SanDisk 1 Terabyte microSD Card

These microSD cards are currently available with capacities up to 1 terabyte, literally the same capacity as the average computer hard disk or SSD drive. A well concealed microSD card would be extremely difficult to find. So if you want to keep your sensitive data handy at all times, especially if you know that you are going somewhere without Internet access, just find a really good hiding place for your data-laden microSD card and chances are that foreign Customs officers won't find it, even with a comprehensive frisk search. And just make sure that the microSD card is in a place where x-rays won't see it.

DELETING FILES FROM SSD

If your computer has a mechanical hard disk drive, even though you delete sensitive files from the Recycle Bin and you think that they are gone, the files still leave their traces in the magnetic residue on the hard disk platters. If authorities use the right equipment such as a Spinstand Tester, some parts of those files that might be very incriminating could possibly be recovered.

It is highly unlikely that authorities would go to such very expensive lengths unless they suspect you of being a criminal mega-mastermind, such as the evil brains behind a billion dollar narcotics ring. But if you really want to ensure that sensitive files are well and truly gone forever, you need to delete them with a military grade eraser program and there are plenty of such free apps available.

None of this applies to solid state drives (SSD). These days, just about every modern notebook computer uses SSD for storage, so the idea is to delete anything sensitive from the SSD and delete the contents of the Recycle Bin before going through foreign or Australian Customs, making sure that those files are first backed up in your remote Cloud or NAS storage. Once files are deleted from the Recycle Bin, they are gone forever and there is no way to recover them. That way, you won't get caught with your pants down, figuratively speaking. One of the best computer upgrades is to replace the old mechanical hard disk drive with a SSD. It's a hell of a lot faster and far more secure.

DELETE ALL COMMUNICATIONS

It is amazing how many people have incriminating or illegal information on their smartphones and computers. For example, people try to enter a country on a tourist visa that does not allow them to work, yet they have messages and files on their computers and smartphones indicating that they have arranged jobs in that country. Some even carry paper documents indicating work chances and appointments with potential employers. This is height of stupidity and carelessness. Many people are caught out by immigration officers who find such messages and files on their devices and in almost every case, those people are instantly deported.

So when travelling, the safest thing to do is this:

It's one thing to use encrypted message apps and know that you can't be eavesdropped, but it's very foolish to be forced to unlock your smartphone and give border authorities access to the communications that would have been totally confidential. If you need documents, but you do not want Customs or Immigration officers to get their hands on them, merely store them in your remote Cloud or NAS facility or maybe on your very well-hidden microSD card.

Once you get through Customs and Immigration, you can just download those documents and go to an Internet café or library and print them up if you need hard copies. Or merely get that microSD card out of its hiding place and copy the files to your devices. Borders do not exist when you use these techniques. And once you are well on your way and away from Customs, then you can restore that data onto your devices.

FLUSHING THE MEMORY

Most people who have a modern notebook computer do not realise that when they press the OFF button, it does not actually switch the computer off. The computer essentially goes into a standby sleep mode. Customs could demand that you switch on your notebook and see what is sitting in the memory. So before you arrive at Customs and Immigration, the trick is to actually switch off your notebook completely by holding down the OFF button for about 10 seconds. This will actually switch it right off, also flushing the memory completely. The same applies to a smartphone. Hitting the OFF button only puts it on standby, so the idea is to hold the OFF button down for about 5 to 10 seconds until the phone switches right off. Then you can feel confident when you enter the Customs and Immigration hall that nothing incriminating can be recovered from your devices.

DEALING WITH AUSTRALIAN CUSTOMS

Even when I am re-entering Australia from an overseas trip, I make sure that there is nothing sensitive on my SSD-equipped notebook computer or iPhone. If I am pulled aside by Customs for an inspection, I immediately state that there is absolutely nothing of any interest or anything remotely illegal on my devices. I state that I have deleted everything except essential software and innocent files and have flushed the contents of the Recycle Bin, so that nothing that was deleted can be recovered. Therefore Customs can look all they like and they will find nothing incriminating. But I can reload all those missing files from my backup as soon as I am back home or anywhere else in transit from a Cloud-type account or my NAS via the Internet. It's always better to be safe than sorry.

DO NOT ANSWER QUESTIONS OTHER THAN THOSE REQUIRED

It is amazing how so many people entering Australia answer literally every question that Customs and Immigration officers put to them. Apart from submitting the Inbound Declaration Form and stating whether you are carrying any items that need inspection, you are not required to answer any questions that are not relevant to your situation and you should not do so. Always remember that it is an offence to lie to a Customs and Immigration officer, so obviously if you don't say anything, they cannot accuse you of lying. And it is amazing how easy it is to blurt out something damaging in the stress of the moment.

For instance, I am gobsmacked to see so many people present themselves to Australian Customs and are asked, "Sir, have you used drugs such as cocaine or heroin?" and those idiots admit to doing so. Or they try and make themselves look more innocent by admitting to using lesser drugs such as marijuana. All this does is tell Customs officers that these passengers are indeed drug users and they will be given a thorough going over, usually including a body search and even an x-ray to see if they are concealing something internally.

You should always keep in mind that anything you say can be used against you, so the best thing is - shut the hell up and just refuse to answer any questions that are not directly pertinent to the information on that Inbound Declaration card. If you are asked what you were doing overseas, don't say anything - it is none of their business to know this. They can ask if you have been on a farm, obviously for quarantine purposes, but if they ask you if you are carrying narcotics, refer them to your Inbound Declaration, but don't answer the question. If they ask if you use or used narcotics, refuse to answer. You are not required to do so and the safest method is to never give them any ammunition by making any admissions whatsoever.

TAKE ALL THESE ACTIVE MEASURES NOW

Finally, the other main thing you should do before going into a situation where Customs, police or other authorities might try and access your phone is to make sure that your device is charged up and has lots of available storage. Almost every phone nowadays has a way to access its camera without fully unlocking the phone, so you can capture photos or videos more securely. Furthermore, the built-in voice recorders on most phones will continue to record audio even when locked, so if anything goes down, you'll want to make sure you have room to record everything you can. Nothing beats hard indisputable evidence in court.

It is important for anyone who values their security and privacy to do everything they can to protect themselves and their devices and data. Passcodes and encryption will keep snoops at bay, but only if you employ these measures and never ever divulge those passcodes or decryption keys to anybody. And the most important thing is to never make any admissions. Just shut up and don't be tempted to answer questions that you are not required to answer.