Eliminating Cellphone Searches at the Border: Senate Committee takes on Bill S-7

The Senate national security committee rejected Mendicino's proposal to designate 'reasonable general concern' as justification to search electronic devices at border crossings.

Senate committee votes to eliminate cellphone searches at border
The Canadian Press / Jeff McIntosh
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Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino lost a major vote on a cellphone search bill. According to Blacklock's Reporters, "the Senate national security committee rejected his proposal to designate “reasonable general concern” as justification to search electronic devices at border crossings."

The National Post said:

The government bill introduced in the Senate, Bill S-7, amends the Customs Act to clarify the circumstances under which border officers can search personal digital devices like cellphones and laptops. It would create a new standard of “reasonable general concern” for cellphone searches at the border, which civil liberties groups have said is too permissive.

On Monday, senators on the national security and defence committee passed an amendment proposed by Sen. Mobina Jaffer to replace that proposed new standard with “reasonable grounds to suspect,” the most permissible standard that currently exists in law, which is still more restrictive than the government’s proposed new threshold.

Jaffar said she had her own personal experience of being racially profiled where she had to be pulled in for another round of questioning. Only after she was showed her green passport, then she was let go. She said in the National Post, that this issue began after the Sept. 11 attacks and 21 years later, “racial profiling has not stopped.” 

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association says, "The Bill was made necessary by a key judgement in the Alberta Court of Appeal. In 2020, the decision in R. v. Canfield held that the examination of the content of a personal digital device (e.g. a cell phone or a laptop) under the Customs Act is unconstitutional, because the relevant section of the legislation imposed no limits on the device search. The Court suspended the declaration of invalidity for a year in order to give Parliament time to amend the legislation and introduce a threshold."

According to The Government of Canada website:

Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers are allowed to examine all goods you have with you when you cross the border. This means that just like your luggage, our officers can examine your cell phones, tablets, laptops and any other digital device you are carrying. 

From November 2017 to December 31, 2021:

  • travellers processed at the border: 253,509,912
  • travellers who had a digital device examined: 33,373
  • examinations that were resultant: 12,457

Checking someone's personal device when crossing the border is a violation of privacy. As the numbers shown from above, little over 33,000 had their devices examined. There's no guarantee that the guards at the border check every single persons' digital devices, so why is this bill S-7 even around?

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