Civil Liberties

Beware Canadian Border Guards Pawing Through Your Phone and Computer


Border port of entry
Government of Canada

A bit of Internet buzz in recent weeks has it that the Canadian government is warning its citizens not to bring large amounts of cash to the United States because cops might steal it under the guise of "asset forfeiture." It's not really true, though it ought to be. It is true, however, that the United States government warns Americans traveling to Canada that border authorities could well go pawing through their cell phones and laptops without any cause at all.

The buzz started with a piece by CBC Senior Washington Correspondent Neil Macdonald cautioning:

On its official website, the Canadian government informs its citizens that "there is no limit to the amount of money that you may legally take into or out of the United States." Nonetheless, it adds, banking in the U.S. can be difficult for non-residents, so Canadians shouldn't carry large amounts of cash.

That last bit is excellent advice, but for an entirely different reason than the one Ottawa cites.

There's a shakedown going on in the U.S., and the perps are in uniform.

Macdonald never claimed the warning is related to asset forfeiture (it's actually because of U.S. Customs requirements), but uses it as a starting point for a riff on asset forfeiture, building on the Washington Post's great coverage of that nationwide law enforcement scam.

But the Internet took the ball and ran with it, with sites and bloggers announcing that the Canadian government cautions travelers about uniformed highwaymen south of the border.

Again, the Canadian government should offer that warning, but it doesn't.

But the U.S. State Department does caution travelers about warrantless searches of electronic equipment for travelers heading north of the border.

Canada has strict laws concerning child pornography, and in recent years there has been an increase in random checks of electronic media of travelers entering Canada.

Computers and cell phones are subject to searches without a warrant at the border and illegal content can result in the seizure of the computer as well as detention, arrest, and prosecution of the bearer.

The searches are justified as attempts to intercept child pornography, but just-because pawing through your stuff by government officials is intrusive and annoying no matter the reason. It's also potentially dangerous, since there's no way of knowing what officials will find intriguing while scanning your hard drive.

Then again, the United States does the same thing. In the course of a lawsuit over the practice, the ACLU noted, "Between October 1, 2008 and June 2, 2010, over 6,500 people—nearly 3,000 of them U.S. citizens—were subjected to a search of their electronic devices as they crossed U.S. borders. DHS claims it has the right to conduct these invasive searches whenever it likes, to whomever it likes, and without having any individualized suspicion."

The official policy is here, and it has been upheld in court.

Ain't travel fun?