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Border control: How you can protect your data privacy when crossing the U.S. border

With so much data on your cellphone or laptop, what are you required to provide when crossing the border? A project funded by CIRA's Community Investment Program is educating people on their data privacy at the border.
By Erica Howes
Communications Specialist

With so much data on your cellphone or laptop, what are you required to provide when crossing the border? A project funded by CIRA’s Community Investment Program is educating people on their data privacy at the border.

Think back to the last time you crossed the U.S. border. The airport announcements blaring, standing in a security line-up worried about making your flight, juggling luggage and documents, your carry-on bag in one hand and passport in the other.

Even if you always travel light, there’s something you carry a lot of: your data. Consider how much sensitive information you have on your cellphone and laptop—personal photos, passwords, confidential work documents, text messages.

The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) can search people and their possessions under the Customs Act at the border, which includes the files on your devices. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in preclearance areas of Canadian airports can also examine the information on your devices

By handing over your device to someone, they’re gaining access to a lot of private information and a big window into your personal life.

We know that data privacy is a concern for Canadians. According to Canada’s Internet Factbook, 69 per cent of Canadians are concerned about the security and privacy of their personal information and data on the internet if it is stored in or routed through the U.S.

It’s important to know your rights when crossing the border with electronic devices. But where can you begin to educate yourself?

New guidebook to the rescue: Educate yourself on your rights at the border

That exact question prompted the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) to partner with the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) to create an electronic devices privacy handbook to educate people on their rights at the border.

Funded by CIRA’s Community Investment Program, the guide is for people crossing through the border into Canada or departing for the United States through preclearance areas in Canada. The handbook is also for non-citizens entering Canada who may be subject to searches. With the many languages spoken in Canada, BCCLA and CIPPIC are making the information more accessible.

Today, the e-devices guide is launching in French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Punjabi and Tagalog, in addition to the original English version

What can officials search at the border?

According to Canadian and U.S. laws, officers do not need a warrant to look at your phone. Any individual can be subject to a random search at the border. BCCLA’s guide states that “there is uncertainty as to whether you are legally obligated to provide it, though CBSA has been able to arrest people or threaten arrest for failing to provide the password.”   

Nevertheless, there are precautions you can take before traveling to protect your privacy at the border.

Here a few tips from the guide:

  1. Leave your devices at home. Consider whether you need every device you are bringing on your trip; alternatively if you are a frequent traveller, consider using a dedicated travel device with no data or activity on it.
  2. Back up your data. Leave this backup at home in case your device is detained. This also gives you the opportunity to delete unnecessary data on your device before you cross the border.
  3. Securely delete data. Use built-in tools to permanently delete data you don’t need to travel with. Rather than just putting files in the recycling bin, use programs like cipher on Windows or the ‘secure empty trash’ function on a Mac.
  4. Require a password. If an officer sees your device requires a password, they may be less interested in pursuing if they have to ask for your password to log in.

Consult the full report here for more information on your rights at the border.

About the CIRA Community Investment Program

CIRA is building a better online Canada through the Community Investment Program by funding innovative projects led by charities, not-for-profits and academic institutions that are making the internet better for all Canadians. Every .CA domain name registered or renewed contributes to this program. To date, CIRA has supported 130 projects with $5.45 million in contributions.

About the author
Erica Howes

Erica works in corporate communications at CIRA. Her background is in writing and community relations in the non-profit sector. She is a graduate of Carleton University’s journalism program.