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US immigration cell phone searches are allowed at border crossing

A lot is being said about the rights of border agents to search the phones of Canadians crossing the border. Vancouver residents who plan to travel across the border to Seattle might be unsure about the criteria for when extensive cell phone searches are allowed. U.S. immigration issued a directive in January that explains the limits on border agents’ rights when it comes to downloading documents from cloud storage and uploading or analyzing files.

According to the Border Search of Electronic Devices directive, agents do not need probable cause to demand a password be supplied to gain access to a phone. The owner of the device may refuse. However, that might lead to the phone being detained or seized. Travel could be delayed, and non-U.S. citizens might even be denied entry.

Many people are concerned about the border agents’ right to access and download files from cloud storage. Since the issue of the January directive, nothing in remote storage may be accessed from the phone. In fact, border officials must ask the owners to switch their devices to airplane mode to disable connectivity. If warranted, the border agents may do that themselves.

To avoid delays at the border, travellers might be smart to remove private or sensitive material from their phones or transfer it to cloud storage, switch it to airplane mode and hand it over without questions. However, additional advice from an experienced U.S. immigration lawyer in Vancouver could be valuable. Legal counsel might further ease the border crossing while making sure all the necessary documentation is in place.