Most Canadian’s understand why authorities have the power to search their luggage when they cross into the country.
The majority feel the cost—an intrusion of privacy against the individual—is worth the benefit—improved physical security for all.
But what about one’s electronic devices including phones and laptops?
In a suitcase, you might have an embarrassing pair of underwear. On your phone, border agents can easily gain access to banking information, browser history, work documents, health records, contact information for friends and family, photographs, every single email and text message you’ve written in recent years, and so much more.
Is the extreme invasion of privacy that’s inherent in authorities searching one’s phone on balance with the increased level of security such searches mean for the country?
That’s a question on which Canadians are not in agreement.
Yesterday (May 5), CBC News reported that a Toronto lawyer was returning to Canada from South America when members of Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) demanded the man’s passwords to his phone and laptop.
He refused, at which point CBSA seized the two devices and informed the man, Nick Wright, that his phone and laptop would be sent to a government facility where staff would break his passwords and search the devices there.
The story has set of alarm bells across the country, eliciting thousands of comments in response to the CBC article and articles where other outlets have covered the story.
What should you do if CBSA demands access to your electronic devices?
Under current laws in Canada, there isn’t much you can do, according to the internet-advocacy group OpenMedia.ca.
“Your phone is not safe at the border,” reads a warning the group shares at the top of a website it’s dedicated to the issue, BorderPrivacy.ca.
“Most people in Canada don’t know much about their rights at the border, much less what the rules for device searches are or how to file a complaint if the rules aren't followed,” it continues. “So, we decided to launch a site to let you know what rights you have in a border area, what you’re legally required to do, and links to file a complaint.”
OpenMedia shares a “know your rights” guide that the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) published in 2018.
Titled, “Electronic Devices Privacy Handbook: A Guide to Your Rights at the Border,” it covers what is allowed and not allowed at entry ports to Canada as well as at U.S. preclearance areas such as the U.S. customs check at Vancouver International Airport.
The guide also discusses how one can best protect information stored on their devices and measures one can take before travelling.
Despite many helpful tips, however, the bottom line is that if you are crossing a Canadian or U.S. border with an electronic device, authorities can demand access and, if you refuse to share your passwords, they can take the items from you.
“Our laws must be updated to reflect the sheer volume of personal photos, messages, and private files we carry on our digital devices,” the OpenMedia.ca website reads.
It encourages members of the public to contact their MP and request Ottawa revise border-security and privacy laws to better reflect the significant amounts of personal information to which electronic devices now facilitate access.