The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Yves Faguy

Why searching phones at the border might violate privacy rights

February 23 2017 23 February 2017

 

Steven Penney of the University of Alberta has a topical paper out in which he argues that customs searches, without suspicion, of digital data are unreasonable under section 8 of the Canadian Charter. Specifically, he pushes back against the notion upheld by our courts that seizing electronic devices at the border, and demanding to access them with passwords, is justified by border security interests.

It has become a cliché to say that the law struggles to keep up with technological change. Both police and privacy advocates claim that digitization has put them at a disadvantage. For the most part, however, courts have done a credible job in adapting criminal procedure doctrine both to account for the unique qualities of digital data and networks and to preserve consensus accommodations between privacy and law enforcement.

Digital customs searches have so far been an exception to this. Reflexive adherence to precedent has led courts to discount the intrusiveness of digital searches and inflate the harms of digital contraband. At customs, searches of digital containers are much more intrusive than searches of physical ones. And they do almost nothing to stop, deter, or regulate the flow of harmful data into Canada. Instead they have become an adjunct to non-border criminal law enforcement, unjustifiably exempt from the civil liberties protections applying in that realm.
 

 

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