As a NEXUS card holder, you provide your personal information to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP). This process is as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) for increased security while travelling in the Western hemisphere. Aside from using it for control purposes, the CBSA and CBP may share your information with other government institutions.
The CBSA is legally prevented from sharing your personal information with much of the government, due to the Privacy Act. The CBP in the US has no such restrictions.
As a general rule, all Canadian government authorities which comply with the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act must make the type of information they hold known to the public. A full alphabetical list of institutions that may get access to your information is available on the website of the Treasury Board Secretariat.
Each institution may hold different information. However, most are interested in the type of information called “internal services” which refers to human resources or financial management areas, including details such as standard classes of records and standard personal information banks.
How to Ask for Personally Identifiable Information
To get publicly available information, you need to file a request under the Access to Information Act or the Privacy Act. You need to obtain written consent not more than a year old from the person whose information you are seeking in order to be able to ask for publicly held personal information from the Access to Information Act on their behalf. Asking for another person’s information under the Privacy Act is not allowed.
You can submit either an online request or a written request. Use form TBS/SCT 350-57 for an Access to Information Request or form TBS/SCT 350-58 for a Personal Information Request form), You can also submit a written letter clearly indicating the act you are using for to obtain information.
The request must be signed and dated. Include a CAD$5 fee, which needs to be paid by credit card for an online request, and by money order or check for a written request.
Fax the form to (343-291-7012) or mail it to:
Canada Border Services Agency
Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator
333 North River Road
14th Floor, Tower A
Examples of information you can ask for from the CBSA include time periods, file names and numbers, client identifiers, report titles, and locations, for example – point of entry, as well as individuals’ names and dates of birth.
Privacy of Electronic Devices and Digital Data
Apart from conducting a physical search, border guards are allowed to ask for the password of your digital devices. They can also search your phone or your laptop.
As a general rule, you need to allow searches of electronic devices since Canadian courts have ruled that these searches are not considered an invasion of privacy. To protect yourself against disclosing large amounts of data, you can minimize the number of devices or the amount of data that’s on them when passing at border crossing points
Physical searches and searches of your electronic devices are allowed because the Canadian government is interested in keeping unsafe goods and dangerous people away from the borders. Therefore, although you still have the right to privacy according to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, its application is limited due to the enhanced frequency of people and goods at border crossing points.
If you decide not to give away your devices or disclose your password, Canadian border crossing officers won’t typically arrest you or file charges. However, you may be marked as a person who needs to undergo extensive searches in the future.
How Does the CBSA Identify Persons Who Will Undergo an Electronic Device Search?
The main rule is that this is not a routine. One indicator is not enough. CBSA officers need to find a sufficient number of indicators that a person’s device may hold suspicious data or content, in order to pull over that person for a detailed search.
The information that the CBSA officer is usually looking for could include the following:
- Import of suspicious or inappropriate goods coming from a flagged trader.
- Information for travellers who have recently been travelling to high-risk destinations.
- Unusual travel routes, a nervous demeanour and solo male travellers are more often subject to search.
- Travelling with too many electronic devices for one person.
- Suspicious file or sexually-suggestive (pornographic) files.
- Last-minute ticket purchases and unclear luggage indications.
As a risk assessment technique, Canadian authorities use Scenario Based Targeting (SBT) to check visitors coming to Canada by air. This technique includes analyzing the API/PNR data sent to the CBSA by commercial air carriers against predetermined risk scenarios.
How Can I Protect My Data?
If you want to keep your data private when crossing the border you need to either leave your device at home and travel without it or make a backup copy of your data and leave it at home while you travel with only the amount of data necessary for your travel on another device. Alternatively, you can use a secure cloud storage provider to save your data online while you keep minimal sensitive information on the device.
Border crossing security specialists can access the memory on your devices even if you don’t provide the password, so make sure you turn it off before you undergo the search. Enhanced security protection, such as 2-factor authentication can help you protect the privacy of a digital device in situations when only one of the devices you own is kept by the border authorities.
Remember that if you are travelling to the U.S., CBP officers have increased authority over how they conduct physical and electronic device searches. If you deny them the right to search your device, you can be detained, and even arrested. This procedure does not apply to CBP officers who operate in Canadian airport pre-clearance areas.
If you think that a border officer didn’t stick to the rules of the proper search procedure, you can file a complaint with the respective CBSA office or with the with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Discrimination complaints need to be filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.