We need a ‘trip mode’ for social media sites that reduces our
contact list and history to a minimal subset of what the site
normally offers. Not only would such a feature protect people
forced to give their passwords at the border, but it would
mitigate the many additional threats to privacy they face when
they use their social media accounts away from home.
Both Facebook and Google make lofty claims about user safety, but
they’ve done little to show they take the darkening political
climate around the world seriously. A ‘trip mode’ would be a
chance for them to demonstrate their commitment to user safety
beyond press releases and anodyne letters of support.
What’s required is a small amount of engineering, a good
marketing effort, and the conviction that any company that makes
its fortune hoarding user data has a moral responsibility to
protect its users.
To work effectively, a trip mode feature would need to be easy to
turn on, configurable (so you can choose how long you want the
protection turned on for) and irrevocable for an amount of time
chosen by the user once it’s set. There’s no sense in having a
‘trip mode’ if the person demanding your password can simply
switch it off, or coerce you into switching it off.
This is a good idea, but I worry that it won’t be enough. Even if it’s irrevocable for a temporary period, what happens if the rules are changed such that a customs agent inspecting your phone can detain you if any of your social media accounts are in “travel mode”? Is there a way to make such a mode undetectable?
“Travel mode” would be better than nothing, but no technical solution is a substitution for proper civil liberties. Our phones and devices should be protected against unwarranted search and seizure, period.