The United States and Canada are now sharing a huge amount of information about their citizens. They are making your information available to a growing number of foreign governments as well. Some information is also shared with non-government companies. Once the information is shared, it then becomes part of the other entities’ databases, so your information can end up in databases around the world.
Thanks to license plate readers and RFID technology in passports and other documents, border agents know who is approaching them before you arrive at the customs station. This information is run against their databases, which will automatically flag persons who warrant additional inspection. See our page on Border Searches for information on what they can search if you trigger a secondary inspection.
What Types of Information Can a Customs Officer See?
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). Other available databases include the Canadian Integrated Customs Enforcement System (ICES), the U.S. Border Crossing Information (BCI) system, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), the U.S. Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS), and almost every other database maintained by the U.S., Canada, and other international organizations. These databases capture an enormous amount of information about you.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also maintains something called the Automated Targeting System (ATS). This system scrutinizes a large volume of data for every person who crosses a US border and then automatically assigns them a “terrorist” rating. If you travel internationally, you probably have a score that rates how risky you are. You are also likely to have a score if you work in the import/export business, the shipping business or the travel industry in any capacity. The lower your score, the less likely it is that you would be bothered by airport or border personnel. A higher score may earn you extra questioning at a security checkpoint. A very high score could make it nearly impossible for you to travel internationally or get a job in shipping or travel anywhere in the world. The DHS has not explained what analytical methods they use to come up with the score.
Every time you cross a border, the following information is captured and put into a database.
- Your name
- Date of birth
- Mode of travel
- Purpose of travel
- Value of goods purchased abroad
This information forms your “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 any search
- The border official’s interview notes
- Details of any action taken
- The names of your travel companions.
Below are some of the other things the U.S. and Canadian Border officer may be able to see if they want to dig deeper:
- Any criminal history
- Your citizenship status
- Family members and relatives
- Various types of tax information such as any Delinquent Tax payments
- Current Job
- Complete history of all border crossings – including state ports where there are border checks
- Frequent traveler memberships such as Global Entry or NEXUS
- Renouncement of U.S. citizenship
- Dishonorable discharge from the armed forces
- Protection/restraining orders for domestic violence
- Mental-health information if it is captured because police services uploaded an attempted suicide. Hospitalizations can therefore be apparent. Either the US or Canada may deny entry to someone with a mental illnesses history.
- Credit card data is available thanks to the U.S. Patriot Act
- All of your contact telephone numbers
- Your frequent-flyer information
- The travel agency or travel agent you use
- Any one-way tickets you’ve purchased
- Your e-mail address
- Property records
- Physical characteristics
- Any law enforcement intelligence information.
- Your flight no-show history
As you can see, a wide range of government departments collect a lot of information. This collection can paint a pretty detailed picture of many citizens. And, last but not least, officials are free to dig into the internet to see what they can find about you – including in your social media accounts. You should 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.
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 its way into the private sector. For example, when the U.S. scans your license plate at a border crossing, the record of your trip 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.
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 some of the information that the government has collected about you. You may not be able to see your ATS rating. To get what you can from your United States files, 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 be 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.
If you feel you have been wrongly placed on some type of watch list, or experience security screening problems, the Department of Homeland Security has established a Traveler Redress Inquiry Program which allows you a channel to challenge what is in your file. However, we have not heard that going down this road has made much difference.