Did You Know? Canadian Border Guards Can Search Your Phone


It's no secret that 9/11 fundamentally changed the way people travel, not to mention their expectations of privacy while traveling.

Over the past 15 or so years, stories of shocking—and upsetting—privacy violations have cropped up on major media outlets. In the U.K., a mother expressed outrage after her 13-year-old son was subjected to a "traumatic" pat down. Late last year, a woman with breast cancer complained of a "humiliating" security check at LAX.

While news of overzealous pat downs make many prospective travelers feel anxious and, at times, unsafe, critics are quick to remind detractors of the very real security threats some "travelers" pose.

There was, after all, an incident during which an infamous underwear bomber was thwarted.

But while true security breaches are few and far between, airline and border security culture (from security checks at airports to customs screenings at all border crossings) has changed and people can and do expect increased scrutiny when preparing to board flights or enter/exit Canada. That said, the privacy of one's body is still considered paramount (for obvious reasons) and perhaps only marginally more sacred than the secrets of one's smartphone.

For that reason, travelers might be surprised—and unhappy—to learn that border guards can indeed search the devices.

According to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) have "widespread powers to stop and search people, and examine their baggage and other possessions including devices such as laptops and smartphones. Under Canada's Customs Act, these activities may be conducted without a warrant."

Now, it's important to note that the office says that, as far as it knows, Canadian courts "have not yet ruled on whether a border officer can compel a person to turn over their password so that their electronic device may be searched at a border crossing."

But while there's no law (or at least there does not appear to be a law) that mandates that people provide their password to CBSA officers, their devices can indeed be searched by them.

That said, searches of devices do appear to be somewhat rare.

"While the law is unsettled, CBSA policy states that examinations of personal devices should not be conducted as a matter of routine; such searches may be conducted only if there are grounds or indications that 'evidence of contraventions may be found on the digital device or media.'"

It's also possible that CBSA officers will ask for the password to your smartphone, tablet or laptop—even though you're not mandated to give it. According to the policy, officers are only allowed to examine what's stored in the device—think photos (oh boy!), files, emails and other media. Since officers are advised to disable wireless and internet connectivity, they are unlikely to search, say, your social media profiles or files stored on a cloud.

Should you refuse to provide your password, your device may be held for "further inspection."

So while you're well within your rights to provide the password—and they cannot legally compel you to share it—refusing to give it could result in the confiscation of your device.

Ideally, you won't be asked to turn your iPhone over to customs officials while on route to Cuba. If you are concerned about privacy and your mobile device, however, you might want to consider deleting private or intimate photos or other sensitive personal information before exiting to entering Canada.

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