Travelling abroad for work? What should you do if a Customs and Border Patrol agent, claiming lawful authority, demands that you unlock your computer or thumb drive or cell phone — full of client confidential information — and hand it over to be searched as you cross the U.S. border?

A New York City bar association ethics opinion issued on July 25 offers some practical tips, and spotlights the ethical duties of confidentiality and client communication involved in this increasingly-common scenario.

Cause for concern

The confidentiality concern is more than hypothetical. According to the Department of Homeland Security, in February 2017 alone, CBP agents searched more than 5,000 cell phones, laptops and other devices. That’s as many searches as in all of 2015. CBP policy apparently permits U.S. customs agents to review any information that physically resides on travelers’ electronic devices, with or without any reason for suspicion, and to seize the devices pending inspection.

The ABA voiced concern in May, requesting that the Department of Homeland Security revise CBP’s procedures in order to better protect client confidential information from search or seizure at border crossings.

Evasive tactics necessary?

Under every state version of Model Rule 1.6, you have an ethical duty to safeguard the confidentiality of client information in your possession, and “few principles are more important to our legal system,” the opinion notes.

The thoroughly-reasoned and detailed New York opinion concludes that Rule 1.6, coupled with Rule 1.1 (Competence), raises obligations before a lawyer approaches the U.S. border; at the border when an agent seeks access to a device; and after an agent has reviewed clients’ confidential information.

  • Before crossing the border, Rule 1.6(c) and its comments, which require “reasonable efforts to prevent … unauthorized access to” client confidential information, means that you must take reasonable precautions in advance to avoid disclosing such information unless authorized by the client (which is unlikely). Depending on the circumstances, including the sensitivity of the information, these efforts may include not carrying any client confidential information across the border. If so, the opinion suggests: securely backing up client information and then crossing the border with a blank “burner” phone or laptop; turning off syncing of cloud services; signing out of web-based services; and/or uninstalling applications providing local or remote access to confidential information.
  • At the border, Rule 1.6(b)(6) and its comments come into play. It permits lawyers to disclose confidential information to the extent reasonably believed to be necessary when required “to comply with other law or court order,” including “a governmental entity claiming authority pursuant to … law.” But, the opinion cautions, disclosure is not “reasonably necessary” to comply with law if there are reasonable lawful alternatives to disclosure. The opinion concludes that “it would be an unreasonable burden” to require a lawyer to forgo entering the U.S. or to allow herself to be taken into custody or litigate the lawfulness of a border search. But the opinion also says that lawyers have a duty not to comply “unless and until” the lawyer “undertakes reasonable efforts to dissuade border agents from reviewing clients’ confidential information or to persuade them to limit the extent of their review.” To facilitate that challenge, you should carry ID confirming that you are a lawyer, notify agents that your device has client confidential information on it, request that the agents limit their review, and ask to speak to a superior officer, says the opinion.
  • After a search or seizure of client confidential information, Rule 1.4 (Communication) requires that you notify affected clients about what occurred and the extent to which their confidential information may have been reviewed or seized. That communication will let the client decide on possible responses, including a potential legal challenge.

Globe-trotting implications

Tennessee ethics lawyer Brian Faughan shared his comments on this opinion under the headline “Practicing law like it’s espionage.” The ways to carry out the potential duty to avoid taking confidential information across U.S. borders, as well as the other recommendations in the New York opinion, indeed make me think of spy craft, and to wonder if we are entering the world of novelist John LeCarre. That’s an uncomfortable thought — but under the reasoning of this opinion, such considerations are necessary as a matter of ethics.