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Facing a digital strip search at the border? Here’s how to keep things under wraps

Concerns about customs and security searches of digital devices are on the rise among corporate travellers.

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Dennis Campbell was returning to Halifax last September from a business trip in the United States via Toronto when a Canada Border Services agent at Pearson International Airport pulled him aside and asked to check his suitcase.

“As she started going through everything, she looked at me and said, ‘You seem really nervous. Do you have something to hide?’” Campbell said. “I had never had that said to me before and I was a little incensed. I thought, ‘She’s doing her job, but she’s not doing it well because I’m not nervous.’ I was kind of annoyed that she was suggesting it. And I said to her, ‘I’m not nervous, check whatever you want to check, you’re not going to find anything. Have at it.’ She was annoyed by that and went through everything.”

But 49-year-old Campbell, chief executive of Halifax-based Ambassatours Gray Line, is a savvy traveller. His companies – which include a waterfront restaurant, gift shop, event venue, fleets of boats, amphibious craft and tour buses serving cruise ships using the ports of Saint John, Halifax, Sydney and Charlottetown – form Canada’s largest land and water tour operator. With a far-flung customer base, he practically lives on the road and he’s used to customs delays, so he knew better than to push the point with the agent. She could have subjected him to a much worse fate – a strip search of his phone and computer – and, to his great relief, she did not.

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Concerns about customs and security searches of digital devices are on the rise among corporate travellers. In 2017, research into modern business travel showed “65 per cent of managers who oversee travel programs reported an increase in traveller inquiries about personal security over previous years. Travel managers are getting questions like ‘What do we do around security and safety?’ ” says Patrick Doyle, vice-president for Canada for American Express Global Business Travel (AEGBT).

The research also recognized the increasing number of opportunities for travellers to “do the wrong thing” when it comes to trans-border behaviour. In most cases, this leads to a minor inconvenience, such as Campbell’s case. But for travellers, the real issue is around the digital strip searches that sometimes take place.

In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security says 30,200 digital devices were searched in 2017, compared with just 8,503 in 2015. Homeland Security’s procedures allow for a “basic” look at a device, as well as “advanced” searches. The advanced searches allow customs officers to attach external equipment to a device “to review, copy, and/or analyze its contents.”

The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) only started tracking its searches last November. Between November 20 and March 4, CBSA “examined” the electronic devices of 4,529 travellers, a fraction of the 20,407,746 people who agents processed in that period.

Of the devices CBSA checked, 129 were temporarily confiscated at the port of entry (airport, seaport, road crossing) and sent to the Prohibited Importations Unit or the Digital Forensic Unit for examination. “Those which were deemed admissible were then returned to the place where they were seized and a method to return them to their owners was arranged,” CBSA spokesperson Nicholas Dorion said.

For the initial inspection, CBSA agents can ask for the password needed to unlock the device. “Officers only access information stored on the device at the time of the examination,” Dorion says. “Where possible, internet connectivity is turned off by the officer and passwords are not requested to gain access to any type of account [including any social media, professional, corporate, or user accounts]. If a traveller refuses to provide a password to allow examination of the digital device, or if there are technical difficulties that prevent a CBSA officer from examining the digital device or media, the device or media may be detained.”

While many travellers focus on border issues entering another country, returning home can mean equal scrutiny. “Coming back into Canada, section 99 of the Customs Act allows CBSA to examine any good in your possession,” explains Cyndee Todgham Cherniak, an international trade lawyer with LexSage in Toronto. “They take the position that any electronic document is a good, so the definition of ‘goods’ in the customs act includes anything whatsoever, including electronic documents. They treat your laptop, cellphone, USB keys, anything you’ve got with you as if it were its own piece of luggage, like a digital suitcase. … They take the position that you must provide your password and that you’re hindering the officer if you don’t provide your password, and that’s an offense under the Act.”

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Todgham Cherniak says border officers are motivated to check digital devices by inconsistencies in what travellers say and how they present themselves. Having nothing to declare, while carrying a large shopping bag, is an obvious way to raise their interest. “The CBSA term is ‘if there are indicators.’ If there are numerous indicators, they can … escalate the search to the electronic devices for invoices and correspondence relating to purchased goods.”

Given the types of information most people keep on their hard drives – calendars, pictures, clients files, bank statements, tax returns, “everything we’ve done in life” – Todgham Cherniack offers her own privacy solution. “I travel with a clean laptop that doesn’t have any of that stuff on it,” she says. “It doesn’t even have Outlook, so I have to go in through web mail if I’m going to look at my e-mails. I have a clear laptop for the purposes of travel and crossing the border because [CBSA] can download my entire hard drive.”

Another defensive tactic, which arose in testimony in September before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, is to put your phone and laptop in airplane mode. Airplane mode allows a user to access all the information saved in the device, but doesn’t enable automatic online connectivity or access to items stored on other devices, in a shared network or the Cloud. While we surrender some rights by crossing borders, Todgham Cherniack says, “if you’ve turned off your account and it’s in airplane mode, they can’t then download your account and turn it back on. They should not.” CBSA can also go into your apps and app history, as well as any linked Facebook and Skype accounts.

A third option to protect sensitive and proprietary documents while speeding the process is to separate work and personal e-mails. “Use your personal e-mail account if you’re going to buy on eBay or Craigslist,” Todgham Cherniak says. “Do this because the more likely scenario is they think you haven’t declared something in your possession. They’re looking for something very specific and if you have everything that is of a personal nature on your personal e-mail account, then it might be less time spent at the border and they may not download your hard drive if the quick search shows nothing.”

However important one’s work documents are, the reality is that customs officers are primarily focused on searching for illegal activities such as child pornography, hate literature, prohibited goods, terrorist connections and undeclared or undervalued purchases. It’s a cliché, but honesty really is the best policy. It also gets you through customs faster.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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