Avoiding government intrusion in my latest trip to the USA
February 18 to 23 I traveled to Orlando, Florida (USA) for the HIMSS trade show. As much as I have enjoyed the magic of Orlando parks in the past, this was a pure business trip. I am an EU citizen (Spain) living in the UK, and I took a direct flight from London to Orlando. I had recently renewed my passport and ESTA, so I should be able to enter the USA without a problem right? Well, that has been the case dozens of times in the past. But the present is different.
When I applied for the renewal of my ESTA, I noticed a new field in the application form: social media. It was an optional field, so obviously, consistent with my fierce belief and defense of privacy, I refused to disclose such information. But took notice: government intrusiveness is on the rise, and in the era of Trump, it can only get worse.
This has been a challenge for years (border search, dispute over forced password disclosure…), but the atmosphere has gotten completely toxic in the past few weeks. Besides the infamous “travel ban”, a few days before my departure, the following news pointed to an increase in this government abuse:
- Quincy Larson: I’ll never bring my phone on an international flight again. Neither should you.
- The Verge: A US-born NASA scientist was detained at the border until he unlocked his phone
So taking some advice I read online (How to legally cross a US (or other) border without surrendering your data and passwords) I decided to play it safe:
- Even though my laptop is encrypted (as are my backups), for the first time in years, I traveled without a laptop. While it was quite a liberating experience, it also made my work a lot harder and less productive.
- I took a “burner phone”, completely erased, reset to factory default, and with an empty SIM. The plan was to purchase a new phone once I went through the border (which I did), and re-install all my apps and get access to all my usual services. But I did need to take that SIM with me because my business colleagues were counting on contacting me via that number.
Even after all those precautions, and with “nothing to loose”, I was determined to not give my SIM PIN away if requested. Even if it meant refusal of entry, deportation or detention. Why? Because there really is something to loose: my privacy, your privacy. As citizens (even visitors) and individuals, we owe it to ourselves and our fellow citizens and visitors to draw a line, a line most of us agree on (and is expressed in the Constitution and common practice), and defend it above and beyond our personal circumstances.
When it comes to “values”, I do not accept a simplistic utilitarian and individualistic approach. We are a society, we shape and are shaped by culture, and we should aim to advance a civilization. Our society, culture, and civilization. Our beliefs.
Who is “we”? What is “our”? I identify with free thinkers, science, freedom, justice, equality… and those are values shared by a majority of people in the world. The USA has made them “banner words”, and has proudly displayed them everywhere, from anthems to posters, from flags to excuses to invade countries and kill people without even a trial. The say they are ready to die for it, and they surely have killed for it…
So, what happened at the border?
The DHS agent asked me the usual, and legit, questions (length of stay, reason for visit, etc), and then told me: Let me see your laptop.
It was the moment I was both fearing and looking forward to. I replied: I left it at home, so you could not get your hands on it.
His reply was an indication that my precautions were becoming widespread: And you erased your phone to factory default, am I right?
With a grin on my face I could (and did not want to) disguise, I replied: Of course.
With a silent nod, he let me through.
At the tradeshow I was reminded how did we get to that point. For those who do not know it, I work in the healthcare IT industry. Healthcare, in the USA, is an extreme example of the damage that can be caused by wild capitalism and lack of government oversight to protect those in need. The telltale signs were everywhere: extremely rich executives, lobbyists and politicians giving keynote speeches about “healthcare”, while their country has a shameful record of health outcomes vs expenditure; lack of diversity (for example, at a “business breakfast” with over 200 attendees, the only people of color in the room were those serving the food); an absolute focus on short-term profits and legalese, and an appalling absence of focus on real healthcare benefits…
I’ve always believed that the right technology in the hands of people focused on doing good, can change the world. But I must admit I underestimated the colossal reactionary forces of short-sighted economic interest groups.
The struggle continues.