Lately it seems news stories of people being detained and searched at the border are more and more common. If you or someone you know are planning on a visit to the U.S. anytime soon, there are a few things to consider before you making your way to the border – especially pertaining to a device that most of us own and use on a daily basis – our cell phones!
I commonly hear people remark, “why should I care? I’ve got nothing to hide.” Having nothing to hide is not synonymous with wanting someone to search through your personal information. In this day and age the information stored on our cell phones does not differ greatly from information stored in our homes or offices. Even if you have nothing to hide, would you be comfortable with a stranger entering your house and searching through all of your drawers and journals?
If you are like me, your cell phone is a digital portal to all of your personal information including medical appointments and information, banking information, contact lists, content of text messages, emails, and all social media. While police require a warrant to search through your brief case, home office, or bedroom bureau drawers, the same is not required to search through your cell phone.
Canadian and U.S. border agents have the right to search through any personal belongings without a warrant, including digital devices. In Canada, agents only search through local information on your devices, but in the U.S., border agents can search any information stored in clouds, as well as search through all of your personal information on social media apps. If you fail to comply, agents could seize your personal devices and deny entry to the U.S.
Canadians are becoming much savvier about the way their phones are used and what information is available if they are travelling or find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Here is some information that will hopefully assist you when travelling with a cell phone:
Travel outside of Canada
When travelling and being subjected to a border search, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms still applies; however, since we as travellers are choosing to leave the country we have a lower expectation of privacy at borders. Travel is voluntary — no one is forcing you to take vacation – therefore you are choosing to subject yourself to searches.
Just as border agents have a right to empty your bags and root through your belongings, they have the right to root through your cell phone. If you are travelling and have sensitive pictures or information on your phone, the only way to ensure that this information remains private is to remove it from your phone while travelling. Completely deleting all apps and information from your phone may not be ideal, as this could raise red flags. When you are travelling you need to be aware of any privacy concerns before you hit the border, including whose information is on your phone, and whether or not you have an obligation to protect that information.
Ultimately, we all want private information to remain private, and being aware of what is at stake when leaving the country with your cell phone will help you prepare for your travels.
This column gives legal information only, not legal advice.
Amy L. Thomas is a lawyer at English Law, in Enfield.