PIN pushing: how border officials can get into your phone

US (and Canadian) border officials can -- and will -- examine the contents of your phone before letting you in.
Border agents have long had the right to search travellers' physical luggage without a warrant, and that interpretation has been expanded to include digital devices. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Planning to visit the United States? You may want to leave your electronic devices behind. New statistics reveal that digital border searches in the U.S. are on are the rise.

Ed Ou is a CBC photojournalist. Back in October, he had a less-than-smooth experience trying to enter the U.S. when he was on his way to cover anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota.

He was asked to to turn over his phone, but believed doing so could compromise his journalistic sources. "The principle of having to open up my phone to any law enforcement agency without a warrant… I just could not do that, so I refused," says Ed. "They said I was inadmissible for entry." 

Ed's experience had us wondering exactly what our rights are, and what the future of border crossing might look like.

Kaveh Waddell is a former technology writer at The Atlantic, where he wrote about the rise of digital border searches
Kaveh Waddell.

So what can you expect heading to the U.S.?

Travelers who don't unlock their phones could be questioned, detained temporarily and have their phones taken by agents for days.

"If you're not American and you refuse to give up access to your phone then the officers might decide that that's reason to prevent you from entering," Kaveh says.

Micheal Vonn, Policy Director at the BC Civil Liberties Association, suggests you think about what's on your phone before you leave home, especially if you have privileged information on your device. "The border is the last place you want to be defending your privacy," she says.

Will digital border searches become a regular part of the travelling experience? 

"We are on track to nearly triple the number of digital border searches when you compare fiscal year 2015 to the rate of searches going on in the fiscal year 2017," Kaveh explains. "If everything continues as it has, yes, I think that proportion will continue to rise."