Clear data from devices before travelling, academics told

Rising instances of warrantless searches at borders have ‘serious implications for academic freedom and research confidentiality’, says union head

October 2, 2019
airport passport control immigration
Source: Getty

Academics have been advised to clear their electronic devices of confidential research data before crossing national borders, as experts claim that scholars are increasingly vulnerable to warrantless searches.

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), says academics have to assume that there was “no electronic device privacy” when “crossing the border”.

“Everything, including texts, emails, documents, photographs, contacts and search histories, may be scrutinised,” he says in a CAUT bulletin.

“If you are concerned about your privacy, before you cross the border consider clearing app histories and caches, and disconnecting or powering off your devices. If possible, leave your devices behind or bring ‘clean’ electronics stripped of all data that can be connected to remote servers.”

The guidance adds that scholars might want to make “selective deletions of sensitive material, as travelling with empty devices may prompt suspicion at the border and elicit further investigation”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Robinson said that academics and lawyers were increasingly vulnerable to searches by border officials, which have “serious implications for academic freedom and research confidentiality”.

“Oftentimes academics, because of the nature of the work that they conduct, are engaged in controversial research, which is protected by academic freedom. For instance, we have members who study jihadist groups. Crossing a border, if they have [such] materials, may raise some suspicions among border agencies who may not know the context of their research, [and] they could potentially be subject to detention or further questioning,” he said.

Mr Robinson added that researchers “cannot maintain the privacy or confidentiality of human subjects if data [on individuals] can be viewed”.

“Border agents, both when you’re crossing [from Canada] into the US and when you’re coming back into Canada, do have the authority to conduct warrantless searches, where they ask for your password and scroll through your phone, computer or tablet,” he said.

Mr Robinson added that it was not clear which jurisdiction applied in the pre-clearing zones of airports, and the privacy commissioner of Canada has suggested that “full [Canadian] Charter rights and freedoms don’t apply there”.

Louise Amoore, a professor specialising in global geopolitics and security at Durham University, has for several years researched how data and algorithms are used at borders.

She said that “contemporary politics has perhaps given licence to target those perceived to be raising questions or criticism” and that there is “certainly a growing issue in terms of an atmosphere of hate and intolerance”.

“Simultaneously, algorithmic technologies are being used by states to identify or infer who may pose a threat or participate in a protest, for example,” she said.

Professor Amoore added that carrying research data on a device that could be accessed by others “would be in breach of research ethics and data protection”. But she questioned whether steps such as deleting social media would make a difference at borders.

“Much of this data analysis is done in advance of a person’s arrival at the border – much of it is automated – and may not be effectively mitigated by what we may think of as deletion or erasure,” she said.

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Reader's comments (1)

“freedom” ? La plus ca change la plus c’est la meme chose. . Basil Jide fadipe.