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Know Your Rights at the Border

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Know Your Privacy Rights at the Border

With the rise of terrorism and other law-breaking (eg, human trafficking), there has been a great increase in border checks - and the power that governments exercise at their borders. This has resulted in law-abiding citizens seeing their privacy rights erode.

What was once a simple validation of a passport and quick look at the passport photo, can now be a biometric scan - or a scan of a data chip embedded in your passport.

Today, border security in many countries can access your digital devices and intrude on your social media space. This is a power that is being exercised with increasing frequency, and not always in full respect of the travelers' rights. So if you like to travel, get to know just what those border rights are.

Border Agent Powers

In the infographic below, we look at the powers that border security has in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. Security agents in each country can legally request access to your digital devices when you cross the border. US agents can request access anywhere within 100 miles of the border. Agents in the UK and Australia do not even need to have a reasonable level of suspicion to request access; so you could easily be subjected to a spot check.

The biggest concern is that the data on your devices can be inspected. You may be required to provide the password to unlock your device - and to provide access to all your social media accounts. Just refusing could get your device confiscated.

Security Concerns

While access to your personal life is intrusive and distasteful, for some, the bigger concern is whether their data is secure after the government downloads it. Government agencies are not immune from data hacks. This is a particularly problematic issue for business travelers.

Businesses are often party to confidentiality, non-disclosure, and other similar secrecy agreements. If you are traveling for work, would a security download of your data expose you to a breach of said agreement? Should you leave your business devices at home? The answers to questions like these are never simple.

Don't Expose Yourself

The easiest solution to this problem is to leave your devices at home. But this is not always possible and certainly undesirable.

If you are a frequent traveler, you could consider purchasing a cheap device and set it up specifically for travel purposes. Only store data on it that you would not worry about, should it be downloaded. Don't link it to your personal accounts. And use incognito windows for your work.

If you do take a device that contains sensitive information, make sure you know your rights before you enter the country. This infographic will provide you with the most important information for those traveling between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Read it before your next trip!

Infographic showing your digital privacy rights at the borders of the US, UK, Canada and Australia

Protect Your Electronic Devices From Spying Border Agents

Today, when most of us travel abroad, we take some kind of digital device with us - whether it's a smartphone, a laptop, or a tablet. But would you know what your rights are when it comes to the privacy of your digital data?

The US government reported a fivefold increase in the number of electronic media searches conducted on their borders last year (rising from 4,764 in 2015 to 23,877 in 2016), which could be violating a number of people's rights. But with these figures only set to increase, now is the time to know your rights when you're traveling around the world.

United States of America

At the US border

    • Travelers can be asked by agents to
      • Unlock their devices
      • Provide passwords for their devices
      • Disclose information about their social media accounts
        • If a traveler complies, their sensitive digital information can be copied and scrutinized
        • If a traveler declines, their devices can be seized, and they can be detained and subjected to further questioning. They may also be denied entry to the country
    • Travels still have rights, however
      • Border agents have to comply with
        • The First Amendment
          • Freedom of speech, religion, press, and association
        • The Fifth Amendment
          • Freedom from compelled self-incrimination
        • The Fourteenth Amendment
          • Freedom from discrimination
      • Border agents do not have to comply with
        • The Fourth Amendment
          • Freedom from unreasonable seizures and searches
            • There is a legal rule, "border exemption," which places border searches outside of the Fourth Amendment
              • And this exemption doesn't just exist on the borders of Mexico and Canada, as it can also come into play 100 miles inland, within the "border zone"
                • At present, digital devices are viewed as being the same as a suitcase with items in it or a booklet full of materials, creating a gray area as to what rights individuals have when crossing a US border

United Kingdom

At the UK. border

  • Travelers can be asked by agents to
    • Provide them with their digital devices, due to counter-terrorism laws, such as the Terrorism Act, 2000
      • Agents don't even have to show "reasonable suspicion" in order to seize a digital device, and may keep the data for "as long as necessary"
        • This data includes
          • Photos
          • Contact books
          • Call history
          • Who the person has been emailing and texting
            • But the contents of messages cannot be viewed
              • This means agents are able to look through digital devices, download data, and retain it - even if the person in question is allowed to proceed straight through security
        • Many have questioned whether or not the Terrorism Act specifically allows for downloading and retaining data
        • But this gray area still means that around 60,000 people per year have their devices inspected and their data retained by UK border staff


At the Canadian border

      • Travelers can be asked by agents to
        • Provide them with their digital devices
        • Give them their passwords for these devices
          • The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is able to do this under the Customs Act, which allows them to
            • Stop and search people
            • Examine their luggage, devices, and other possessions
          • They can do this at any port of entry into Canada
            • Seaports
            • Air terminals
            • Land border crossings
              • CBSA officers are given the authorization to examine devices, and may do so without a warrant
                • However, the CBSA policy does state that devices shouldn't be searched as a "matter of routine" but should only be conducted if there are suggestions that "evidence of contraventions may be found on the digital device or media"
                  • When examining a digital device, officers may only examine what's stored on it, for example:
                    • Files
                    • Downloaded emails
                    • Photos
                    • Other media
                  • Your device may be held for further inspection if you do not provide your password


At the Australian border

      • Travelers possessions can be seized by the Australian Customs and Border Patrol Service (ACBPS)
        • This includes the power to seize and examine personal electronic devices, such as mobile phones, at the border
          • They don't require a warrant to do this
            • And, even though this power assumes they have some suspicion, due to a tip off for example, this isn't necessary
              • An Ombudsman's report on these powers found that there's no requirement or threshold test which must be met in order for the agent to exercise their power
            • Due to counter-terrorism laws, the ACBPS has the authority to seize digital devices outside of the laws that are detailed in the Customs Act
              • And, when they seize and examine devices, they don't have to tell the suspect what law they're accused of breaking
                • Devices can be retained for up to 14 days so they can be forensically examined
                • Data found on the device can be shared with external agencies
                • Data can only be copied if it is relevant to an offence detailed in the Customs Act
                • Copy of the data has to be deleted if it isn't relevant
                  • However, the ACBPS doesn't have to ask for external agencies to delete copies
      • Anyone entering Australia will also have to declare if they are carrying pornography
      • This includes pornographic materials you may be carrying as well as pictures and homemade films that may be on your electronic devices
        • The laws allow border agents to search digital devices for pornography too
          • And failure to declare this could result in a hefty fine or legal action

How to Keep Your Data Private When Passing Across Borders

      • The safest way to protect your data privacy is to not carry a device at all
        • Or, carry a device that has minimal amounts of sensitive data
          • Don't link these devices to your personal accounts
          • Therefore, if you have to give border agents access to your device, you won't be giving away any of your sensitive information

Even though there are "rights" for people crossing the borders of these countries, it is clear each country holds the upper hand. Border staff are generally able to search devices and retain personal data. In many cases, this means travelers have little option but to provide them with their passwords, otherwise, they face having their device taken from them, being detained for further questioning, or even being refused entry into the country.

Sources: ap.org, eff.org, fortune.com, telegraph.co.uk, makeuseof.com, priv.gc.ca, itnews.com.au, smh.com.au, wired.com


Claire Broadley

About Claire Broadley

Claire has been creating websites for over 20 years and has been using WordPress for over ten. She is an expert in web hosting, design, HTML, and more. She lives with her husband and son in the United Kingdom.


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