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What They Know About You

The United States and Canada are now sharing a great deal of information about their citizens.   They are expanding that policy and are making your information available to a growing number of foreign governments as well.  Some information is shared with non-government companies in order to combat things like insurance fraud.

What the Border Protection Officer Sees on their Screen

At many border crossings, the process starts with license plate readers that can automatically flag persons for additional inspection.   The license plate readers, along with radio frequency identification technology, scan vehicles passing through border checkpoints.  The readers check that information against law enforcement data on cars being sought by police agencies.

Every time you cross a border your name, date of birth, citizenship, address, mode of travel, purpose of travel and value of goods purchased abroad, is collected to form a passage history.  Computers analyze passage histories to pinpoint people who have suspicious travel patterns. These individuals may be earmarked for closer scrutiny by customs officials and law enforcement agents on subsequent trips.

If you are pulled over for a secondary inspection or search even more information is collected and put into the database.  This includes the reason for the additional screening, the results of the search, interview notes, details of any action taken, and the names of your travel companions.

To help evaluate whether to allow you to enter their country, border agents have access to a wide variety of databases including the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database, and the FBI’s electronic clearinghouse of crime data called the  National Crime Information Center (NCIC).  Below are some of the things the U.S. and Canadian Border inspection may be able to see if you are pulled in for a secondary inspection:

  • Criminal history.  This may also include health records that involve contact with with the police – such as suicide attempts
  • Family members and relatives
  • Delinquent Tax status
  • Current Job
  • History of when/where/what times you have crossed borders – including state ports where there are border checks

Privacy Issues

You should be aware that as a general rule courts do not grant you the same protections for information regarding your border crossings that they do for other types of personal information.   The government is given more latitude in the collection and use of private information as crossing a border is not considered a constitutional right.  When Canadian information is pulled into the U.S. database, or vice versa, it is not subject to the privacy laws of the originating country, but rather the policy of the country now holding the information.

Some of this information can also make it’s way into the private sector.  For example, the U.S. scans license plates at many ports and the record of your passage is retained in various government databases.   The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), a not-for-profit organization funded by insurance companies,  is given access to that information for the stated purpose of detecting stolen vehicles or insurance fraud.

You should also realize that there is nothing that prevents a border inspection officer from doing a basic Internet search on you or your passengers during a secondary inspection.  Think twice about what you put up on your social networking site and how it might look to a police officer without much of a sense of humor.  Of course, that is always good advice – whether  crossing a border or just looking for a job.

Scamming the System

One important note: if you are denied entry into the country, the worst thing you can do is to attempt entry at a different border crossing on the same day, thinking you have a fresh chance with a new customs agent. Denied admissions are updated in a centralized database and are accessible immediately at every port of entry.  This could jeopardize your ability to enter the country for the rest of your life.

Obtaining a Copy of Your File Information

Both the U.S. and Canada have a way for you to obtain a copy of the information that the government has collected about you.   To get your information from the U.S. see our page on the Freedom of Information Act.  To ask Canada for your files see our page on the Privacy Act.   Given that the two countries are swapping information, it is possible that parts of your files from both countries could in in the records you receive.  However, getting this information is not as easy as it sounds so expect it to take some time and energy.