As much as ever, it’s important to know your rights in these tumultuous times.
Sometimes, however, knowing your rights doesn’t mean you can get out of doing something you really don’t want to do – in this case, giving up your phone to a Canadian Border Services agent.
But just in case you ever find yourself in a situation that demands you cooperate with a Canadian customs officer, it’s important you know that under current laws they not only have the right to ask you to hand over your phone, they are then allowed to look through it and ask for your password if you have one.
You can refuse to give them your password, but they then also have the right to hold onto your phone.
Considering our phones tend to contain the most important (and intimate) information about our lives, this can be a very scary reality for many. However, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada makes the sweeping power of border services agents quite clear:
Under Canada’s Customs Act, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers have widespread powers to stop and search people, and examine their baggage and other possessions and devices at any Canadian port of entry (land border crossing, air terminal or sea port).
And just in case there is anything unclear as to how these powers pertain to your personal phone, the language surrounding this issue is also available:
CBSA officers are authorized to conduct searches of people entering Canada, including examining their baggage, parcels or devices such as laptops and smart phones. These activities may be conducted without a warrant.
CBSA policy states that examinations of personal devices should not be conducted as a matter of routine; they may only be conducted if there are indications that “evidence of contraventions may be found on the digital device or media.”
If your laptop or mobile device is searched, you will likely be asked to provide the password.
Officers may only examine what is stored within a device, which includes, for example, photos, files, downloaded e-mails and other media. If you refuse to provide your password, your device may be held for further inspection. Our understanding is that the issue of whether a border security agency can compel an individual to provide a password for a personal electronic device at a border crossing is not something that has been specifically looked at by the Courts in Canada.
Important things to note in the above language are that checking your phone is not routine and shouldn’t be treated as such by anyone. As well, they may only examine what is stored on the device, which is to say, if you choose to delete any apps before crossing the border, they won’t be able to access them.
Deleting your apps (and re-downloading later) may seem like a bit of a hassle when you’re taking a trip outside of Canada, but if you’re at all concerned with your phone privacy keep in mind that it’s a lot less of a hassle than being stuck at the border while Canada Services Agents search through your Facebook history.
Of course, there’s always the option of just (gasp) leaving your phone at home when you go abroad.
Before travelling, know your rights and how to protect yourself under them.