(TPM) – Concerns for privacy and increased calls for border safety clashed in Parliament on March 31st when an unusual bill was proposed in the Canadian Senate. S-7, which was drawn up to address concerns about the transfer of digital materials like child pornography, would allow border law enforcement to search travelers’ electronic devices and look through their emails, photos, and text messages, if needed.
So when is it needed? Therein lies the controversial question. The bill seemingly creates a new standard for when such a search may be warranted — when law enforcement determines there are “reasonable general concerns” at play. The concern for privacy advocates is the bill makes no attempt to explain what that standard looks like in practice.
Without a clear and defining set of instructions on when the standard should be applied, S-7 could easily become a “sniff test” kind of law.
The text of the law doesn’t make it much more clear.
“At any time up to the time of release or at any time up to the time of exportation, an officer designated under subsection (2) may, in accordance with the regulations, examine documents, including emails, text messages, receipts, photographs or videos, that are stored on a personal digital device that has been imported or is about to be exported and is in the custody or possession of a person if the officer has a reasonable general concern…”
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) said they don’t know what the standard means. It’s a brand new term, and as such, doesn’t have the backing of precedent or other legal criteria that might better help define the scope of the proposed law.
“The very low (and legally novel) threshold of ‘reasonable general concern’ for border officials to conduct a search of a traveller’s personal electronic device does not adequately protect travelers’ privacy,” the association said in an online post.
Additionally, the CCLA argues, searching through someone’s personal information in digital format is far removed from searching through someone’s physical possessions for the purposes of public safety.
“Searching through the intimate details of our lives contained on our phone or laptop is not the same as digging through a box or suitcase holding a couple of shirts and some socks,” the post argues.
The bill has been read in the Senate twice. Pending further review, the S-7 has been submitted to committee review.