On May 5, 2019, CBC reported on a story of a lawyer who had his cell phone and laptop seized by the Canada Border Services Agency when he refused to give them his passwords.
According to the report, Nick Wright was returning to Canada after a 4 month trip to Guatemala and Colombia. After his bags were searched, the Canada Border Services officer asked for the passwords to his phone and laptop, so that they could be searched as well. Wright refused, telling the officer that his devices contained confidential solicitor-client information. His devices were then confiscated, to be sent to a government lab which would try to determine the passwords and search the files.
According to Canada Border Services, digital devices are classified as “goods”, and Canada Border Services is allowed to examine the goods, including any electronic files on the device, for customs purposes. If a traveller refuses to reveal their password, Canada Border Services may seize the device. According to the policy manual, although an arrest would “appear to be legally supported, a restrained approach will be adopted until the matter is settled in ongoing court proceedings.”
U.S. customs and border protection officials have similar rights to search devices. Refusal to disclose passwords may result in confiscation or a denial of entry.
Such digital device searches do not occur frequent. In the 17 months between November 2017 and March 2019, 19,515 travellers entering Canada (0.015% of all travellers) had their digital devices examined by Canada Border Services.
The Canadian Bar Association warns about the risks of such searches to lawyers. Lawyers have a duty to keep client communications private. This applies to all information about a client or former client. The duty extends to staff, as well. “Your client has a right to privacy which requires you not to disclose to anyone, with exceptions, when any communications between you relate to legal advice sought or given.”
The Canadian Bar Association says that a breach could result in a loss of client trust, a client lawsuit for negligence, an E&O claim, disciplinary action and public criticism.
The Canadian Bar Association suggests that when crossing a border, lawyers should travel with a “clean device”. They should use cloud technology to store any solicitor-client information. Lawyers should erase all privileged information from their devices, including contact lists with clients’ names, addresses and contact information. The search by border services does not allow them to access information on the cloud. Once across the border, this information can easily be reinstalled from the cloud.