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Customs officers should get a warrant to search your phone

Customs officers should get a warrant to search your phone

It’s hard to believe that an act written before smart phones were invented is being cited as the legislation which gives border officers the right to scroll through your cellphone and laptop.

But the Canada Border Services Agency insists the Customs Act allows its officers to do just that.

Canada’s Customs Act must be updated to require border officials to get a warrant before they are allowed search a traveller’s cellphone or any other digital device.

Not surprisingly, human rights and civil liberties organizations have been sounding the alarm. They say the fact that officers don’t even need a warrant to access personal devices is an infringement on privacy and a person’s right not to incriminate themselves.

They’re right. The government should update the act to require officers get a warrant if they want to look at a digital device.

After all, electronic devices contain digital records that lay bare a person’s life through everything from emails to bank accounts to personal photos.

Most recently, Toronto lawyer Nick Wright’s laptop and cellphone were seized by a customs officer after he refused to hand over his passwords because they contained confidential information protected by solicitor-client privilege.

And in 2015, Alain Philippon was actually charged with obstruction after he balked at providing an officer with his password. Even police don’t have that right.

No wonder the consumer advocacy group Open Media has launched a campaign to raise awareness about the issue and pressure the government to update the Customs Act rules.

For its part, Public Safety Canada says the examination of personal electronic devices at the border is not routine and that officers checked the devices of just a tiny fraction (only 0.015 per cent) of all travellers who crossed the border from November 2017 to March 2019.

But that’s hardly reassuring for the almost 20,000 passengers whose devices were examined by customs officers during that period.