Crossing the U.S. Border

October 2, 2017 - Ron Kruzeniski, Information and Privacy Commissioner

I read a tweet last week saying US border guards have a right to inspect your mobile device and to ask you for your password (other articles have suggested this). The Canadian Privacy Commissioner has spoken about this issue.  The same day, a fellow commissioner asked whether any commissioners in Canada had issued an article, blog, guideline or best practice document on this topic. Saskatchewan had not.  So I thought I should.

I expect many public servants who have a work assigned phone (or other mobile device) arrange to have their emails downloaded to their device. Those emails can be from other public servants or citizens of the province.  Those emails could contain personal information (PI) (covered by FOIP or LAFOIP) or personal health information (PHI) (covered by HIPA). So when the border guard asks for your cell phone and password and you provide it, he or she is probably reviewing your texts, contacts and emails.  Thus, there becomes a real possibility that someone’s PI or PHI has been disclosed without authority (a breach).  This is not a situation that any of us want to be in.

Can anything be done? One option is to leave your business cell phone at home (I am sure you don’t like this one).

Another option is to stop the downloading of emails while you are away, thus, preventing a breach due to incoming emails. This does not solve the problem because of what is already on the cell phone. One could take steps to delete all work related emails with PI or PHI from your cell phone.  That could be a lot of work.

So the options are not great. Another option is to ensure your mobile device has no PI or PHI on it but when you get to your destination in the US, VPN into your home system to check emails or access information.  Of course, you want to make sure you are on a secure network in your destination hotel or conference center.

I have struggled with this issue and the writing of this blog has caused me to decide to leave my business cell phone at home when I cross into the United States. What are you going to do the next time you cross the border?



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