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Canadians should worry about U.S. border searches of cell phones: privacy czar

Last Updated Sep 19, 2017 at 8:40 am EDT

Privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien is seen during a press conference in Ottawa, Tuesday, September 27, 2016. The federal privacy czar says Canadians should be very concerned about their cellphones, computers and other electronic devices being searched by U.S. border agents. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – Canadians should be “very concerned” about their cell phones, computers and other electronic devices being searched by U.S. border agents, the federal privacy czar says.

Privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien told a House of Commons committee Monday that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers can look at mobile devices and even demand passwords under American law.

Therrien cited statistics indicating U.S. border searches of mobile phones had increased between 2015 and 2016.

“These devices contain a lot of sensitive information,” Therrien said. “We should be very concerned.”

New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen asked if that means no Canadian should cross the border with a phone, laptop or tablet unless they have “great comfort” with a U.S. border official inspecting the contents.

“Yes, as a matter of law,” Therrien said, though he acknowledged officers would not have time to inspect everyone’s devices, given the huge numbers of people that cross the border daily.

Therrien agreed with Cullen’s suggestion that nothing in law could prevent U.S. border officials from peeking at a senior Canadian official’s “playbook” on a trade negotiation.

Cullen said one of his constituents was denied entry to the U.S. on health-related grounds because information on the person’s phone indicated a prescription for heart medication.

“And I thought, well, this is a strange invasion of one’s privacy.”

Therrien said Canadians should assess the “risk tolerance” they have to their information being examined by U.S. officers.

“My point is, think about what you’re exposing your information to, and limit the amount of information that you bring to the U.S., because it may be required by customs officers.”

Canadian law also allows border officers to inspect cell phones, since they are treated as goods, Therrien told the Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics.

But he noted Canada’s border agency has a policy of limiting searches to cases where an officer has grounds to do so — for instance, because a phone might contain information about contraband items.

Therrien said his office had received a “small number of complaints” about Canadian border officers searching cell phones.

Last spring, Therrien expressed concern about U.S. plans to demand cellphone and social media passwords from foreign visitors.

In a letter to the House of Commons public safety committee, he warned that recent pronouncements from the Trump administration could mean intrusive searches — even at preclearance facilities in Canada.

In February, John Kelly, then U.S. homeland security secretary, suggested at a hearing that American officials could ask people entering the U.S. about the Internet sites they visit as well as passwords to help assess their online activities.

Kelly’s proposal prompted an American coalition of human rights and civil liberties organizations and experts in security, technology and the law to express “deep concern.”

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter