Lately, there has been concern expressed about how far border agents in the US and Canada can go when it comes to digital privacy. Border agents have started searching digital devices and asking for social media passwords.

These practices are especially concerning for people with criminal records because of:

  • Increased likelihood of a search
  • The release of personal information

If you have a criminal record and have not received a Waiver, you could be denied entry to a foreign country, including Canada and the United States. If you are directed to secondary screening, agents will have databases of police records in Canada and the United States. Once there, normal rules about privacy and searches don’t apply. In most of Canada and the United States, law enforcement officials require probable cause to search your belongings. This is not the case at the border. People can be pulled over and searched for a reason, such as suspicious conduct, or they can be pulled over at random. At secondary screening, the border agents generally perform a criminal record search.

Once a border officer discovers your record, they will be more likely to investigate you personally. At this point, they may ask you to hand over your phone, tablet, laptop or any other device. They can ask for your password to enter the device. They can ask not only for your social media handles but also for the passwords to enter the account.

Recently social media account disclosure has been added to a visa form for foreign visitors entering the United States. Canadians don’t require a visa to enter the United States, but they can still be asked at the border.

Authorities in Canada are less intrusive, but they can still search your device. Canada Border Service Agency representatives have told the media that agents can only search information that has been downloaded locally to the device. They can’t open unread emails or access your cloud data.

Personal information

Once you have turned over your passwords, or even just your social media usernames, there is a lot of information the border authorities can access.

  • Your contacts
  • Your personal financial information
  • Company information such as financials, strategic plans, human resources, etc.
  • Political views, religion, etc.
  • Sexual orientation
  • Recent purchases
  • Medical information
  • Any kind of browser history that you wouldn’t want your mother to see

Some of this information could alert the authorities to charges or illegal activities, even if there is no conviction. For example, if you are constantly posting information about marijuana rights, they could search your car and luggage for residue and question you on your usage of marijuana.

If you know people with records, they may question you about your relationships. Any health issues could also cause you to be denied. Some people run into trouble with the law due to extenuating factors, such as mental health and addictions. However, health conditions on their own can also be grounds for denied entry. Also, keep in mind that medical marijuana is not allowed under federal law in the US.

What happens if you don’t comply

If you refuse to comply with a request to turn over personal information, you could face consequences:

  • Denied entry (however, so far, it doesn’t appear that you can be banned permanently)
  • Further searches and questioning on your next visit
  • Confiscated property

If the agents do confiscate your digital devices, they must return them, but there’s no law that says they have to do that in a timely manner. They can hold on to your device for weeks or even months.

If you are a citizen of the country you are entering, you must be allowed to enter. However, you can still be detained, questioned and searched.

What can you do about digital and social media searches?

These practices have created a lot of concern in both the United States and Canada. Civil liberties associations and business organizations have spoken out against them.

There are a few things you can do to avoid a digital search:

  • Don’t bring your digital devices with you
  • Get a “burner” phone (A phone you only use for the trip)
  • Remove your social media apps from your devices and check the privacy settings on social media
  • Upload all your files to the cloud and wipe the device clean
  • Remove your SIM card. You can then mail it to an address on the other side of the border
  • Selectively delete emails and social media posts that might raise questions
  • Clear your browser history

If you are concerned about confidential business information, remove it and ask someone to email you the files you need later

Going too far in trying to foil a potential search could cause the border agents to become more suspicious. If you have no apps, emails or contacts on your phone, it might make them believe you have something to hide.

With more stringent security at the border, it’s important to have all the paperwork you need before you cross the border. If you suspect you need a waiver to cross the border due to a criminal record, contact us and we can help. Even if you have crossed the border before, you could be sent to secondary screening at any time. At this point, agents can discover a record and more intrusive searches can take place.

Contact us today for a free consultation about US Entry Waiver, TRPs or permanent Canadian Waivers at 1-866-972-7366.