For anyone preparing for a trip across the Canada-U.S. border, a new online guide from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association offers some sobering advice about digital privacy.
The handbook, released Wednesday, outlines your rights at Canadian crossings and U.S. customs pre-clearance areas in some airports.
There are few legal restrictions for electronic searches by Canada Border Services Agency officers, according to Meghan McDermott, staff counsel for the BCCLA.
“It’s wide open. They’re allowed to search anything and they’re allowed to do that without suspicion or without a court order,” she told CBC News.
But legally speaking, the courts haven’t placed any limits on CBSA searches, and border agents can copy the entire contents of your device.
By law, border guards are only permitted to conduct a search for evidence of material being brought into the country illegally, or information about someone’s admissibility to the country, per the Customs Act or the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
If your phone or laptop contains sensitive information — like privileged legal documents or private medical files — the only sure way to protect it is to leave it at home, the handbook advises.
In an email Wednesday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said it was not CBSA policy to routinely examine travellers’ cellphones or other devices.
“CBSA officers are trained to conduct all border examinations with as much respect for privacy as possible,” Goodale said.
“Officers may only conduct a search if there are multiple indicators that evidence of contraventions may be found on a device. Their initial examinations are cursory in nature and only increase in intensity based on emerging indicators.”
He said CBSA policy requires officers to disable a device’s internet connection so the search only concentrates on material stored on the device.