Fourth Amendment

Grad Student Challenges Border Laptop Searches


The government is pleased to return your property and report that nothing impermissible was discovered. Have a nice day!

One of the great thrills of international travel is that frisson of Cold War nostalgia we feel upon return, as we line up for readmittance to our own country, just feet from the welcoming embrace of Bill of Rights protections that end, by mandate of a clause located somewhere in the Constitution, at a fifteen-foot distance from anybody wearing a Customs and Border Protection Uniform. But as Checkpoint-Charlie thrilling as even routine border crossings are, they can get a bit tired and, even, over-the-top. It was one such excessively enthusiastic search that led McGill University graduate student Pascal Abidor to challenge the U.S. government's policy of poking through electronic devices at will after he was detained while agents pawed through his laptop.

Abidor was travelling on an Amtrak train from Montreal to New York on May 1, 2010, to visit his parents after the end of the winter semester at McGill. A customs official asked him if he had travelled anywhere in the past year, he said. He told the agent he had been to Lebanon and Jordan.

"As soon as I had told them I had been to the Middle East, that's when they continued the inspection," he told QMI Agency in an interview Monday.

He said he was brought to another section of the train and told to enter the password to his computer.

"They went straight to my pictures," he said.

Customs agents found pictures of rallies of Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups that the U.S. Department of State lists as "foreign terrorist organizations."

Abidor said he told the agent that the pictures were for his thesis in Islamic studies.

He said the agent didn't believe him.

Abidor said he was then handcuffed, frisked "violently" and driven to the border station where he was held for three hours.

To be honest, I've never really understood the terrorist-detection rationale for searches of laptops and the like. Taken on its face, the tactic seems to be aimed at a sweet spot of terrorists too proudly sophisticated to be willing to keep their sinister plans written on a few pieces of paper folded unobtrusively into a jacket pocket, but not sophisticated enough to use software like TrueCrypt to keep their schematics and damning emails hidden and encrypted. True, that sub-population probably does exist in this big world of ours, but it would seem a small nail to hit with a big and really, really annoying hammer.

More likely, I think, border agents are just too lazy to surf the Net for their own porn.

Abidor, a citizen of both the U.S. and France, is represented in his lawsuit against the U.S. government by the ACLU. According to the civil liberties organization, "Between October 1, 2008 and June 2, 2010, over 6,500 people—nearly 3,000 of them U.S. citizens—were subjected to a search of their electronic devices as they crossed U.S. borders. DHS claims it has the right to conduct these invasive searches whenever it likes, to whomever it likes, and without having any individualized suspicion."

The ACLU, of course begs to differ. It represents not just Abidor, but also the National Press Photographers Association, a group prone to transporting electronic devices hither and yon, and loathe to see them swiped and held by federal officials for ten days, as in the McGill student's case. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is also party to the suit, concerned as its members are, with keeping data on clients that might be stored on laptops out of prying government hands.

Abidor and company's lawsuit against the federal search-and-seizure policy got a boost on March 29, when U.S. District Court Judge Denise Casper refused to dismiss a similar suit by David House. House is an outspoken supporter of whistleblower Bradley Manning whose laptop was nabbed by federal officials at O'Hare International Airport and held for seven weeks.

Seven weeks? Even CBP should know that there comes a point when it's obvious that you're not searching anything; you're just screwing with people.

NEXT: U.S. Not Allowing Pakistani Drone Lawyer Into Country

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  1. Seven weeks is a blink of an eye for a bureaucrat

    1. “WHOA, slow down, jeez Pacific Plate, quit crowding me.”

  2. As the majority of New England is in that 100-miles from the border zone, can Customs enter any New Englander’s home and search their computers at will?

    1. Please don’t give them any ideas

    2. I dunno but I had to stop at a customs checkpoint on the highway just south of Bangor Maine. Couple tall guys with guns asking “Are you from Canada?”, I said “No”, and they let us through. Not after a very inquisitive look at the contents of the car.

      Look up Bangor with google maps and zoom out a bit.

      Border Patrol? Really?

      1. Bill of Rights protections that end, by mandate of a clause located somewhere in the Constitution, at a fifteen-foot distance from anybody wearing a Customs and Border Protection Uniform.

        “Fuck you, that’s why.”

      2. I got Border Patrolled near Millinocket. Riddle me that one, Batman.

        1. It’s well known that the set of American Loggers is a high-value target for terrorism.

        2. Millinocket

          It means “1/100oth of a Nocket.” No one knows what a Nocket is any longer. Some say it is a small freshwater fish, and others say those people are retards.

          1. You’re a retard.

            1. Aw… sounds like someone didn’t get his nap yet. You OK, little guy? You need a juice box?

              1. I would like a juice box, yes.

                1. Apple or WartyPiss?

                  1. …WartyPiss, please.

                  2. Apple or WartyPiss?

                    easy choice since WartyPiss tastes less like piss.

            1. Millinocket was first settled in 1829. Russia didn’t even exist then. Maybe you oughta shove some knowledge in ya brainhole before you start putting on airs.

              1. But Millinocket was settled by the Russians.


    3. Good point.

      We should get some kind of test case set up where we get customs to search somebody for guns in Lexington, MA or Bunker Hill. Thatd be good for a laugh at least, wouldn’t it?

  3. Even CBP should know that there comes a point when it’s obvious that you’re not searching anything; you’re just screwing with people.

    One of the perks of having power is the ability to screw with people who can’t do a damn thing about it.

    It’s like playing keep-away with someone half your size.

    Why? Fuck you, that’s why.

  4. … as we line up for readmittance to our own country…

    Global Entry, FFS.

  5. This just pisses me off. You can’t restrict the movement of information. So there is no good reason to be searching through people’s computers at the border. They just do it because they can.

    It is especially awful that citizens have to go through this shit to get home. This is the kind of shit I woudl expect if I wanted to go to Iran.

    1. I know. It’s not like the olden days where you had to physically transport a copy of a document or a photograph from point A to point B. Idiocy and power-tripping are an ugly combination.

      1. Well, if information can just be sent from a foreign location, wouldn’t it be logical to search ALL computers…for foreign emails?
        Uh…how do you tell foreign emails from domestic emails?
        YOU DON’T – search’em all!!!
        OK DELL – spread ’em. I am gonna lube up my floopy and ram it in your disc slot and root around…uh, your root directory. What am I looking for? Japanese lesbian oil massages…and TERRORISM plans!

        Didn’t Ben Franklen say They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve
        neither liberty nor safety?
        OH, and Japanese lesbian oil massage porn is the Best!!!

  6. Is this situation impacted any by the recent appeals court ruling that held that a suspect cannot be compelled to divulge a computer password as part of a search? (IOW, the password is a statement, which cannot be compelled, and not a searchable item?)

    1. I’d like to think so, but I think that at the border they can probably do whatever the fuck they want to you.

  7. no, no, no, a thousand times fucking no. I don’t care if this kid had pictures of himself and Anwar al-Awlaki drinking tea. Riding a goddamn train does NOT make you a criminal, nor does it entitle the govt to rifle through your computer. The lesson here is simple: when asked about your travels, lie. Just lie.

    1. How quaint. You think they ask questions they don’t already know the answers to.

      Dude, they’re hoping you’ll lie.

      1. No shit. Lieing is the go-to crime when there’s no real evidence. I’d never lie to the Feds. That’s about as risky as it gets.

    2. Tell them you didn’t go somewhere that is stamped on your passport? That should end well.

      1. Abidor, a citizen of both the U.S. and France

        So when traveling to the middle east couldn’t he just use a French passport so that his American one is “clean”?

        1. As I understand it, from the American point-of-view that would be technically illegal, but I know many dual citizens that do it all the time.

      2. you are implying these monkeys have the capacity to read and comprehend. Why ask the guy if you’re going to read his passport anyway?

        Had a TSA guy ask on a very early morning first leg of a trip where I was going, and I said wherever the plane lands but preferably in the city under “destination”. He was not amused but I got on board.

        1. TSA doesn’t equal C&BP;. Forget that at your own peril.

          1. true indeed. The typical TSA person’s last job was also in an airport, at one of the fast food joints. Perhaps CBP is a higher level of power-mad.

            1. CBP has actual police powers. You might as well call a cop a pig to his face and then spit on his mother’s grave.

        2. Had a TSA guy ask on a very early morning first leg of a trip where I was going,

          “To Gate 24B, with a sidetrip to Starbucks and the men’s room.”

        3. Why ask the guy if you’re going to read his passport anyway?

          To see if he’s lying.

          1. when the act of having legally been somewhere itself becomes seen as something sinister, can’t imagine why people don’t give agencies like this a big hug.

        4. Had a TSA guy ask on a very early morning first leg of a trip where I was going, and I said wherever the plane lands but preferably in the city under “destination”. He was not amused but I got on board.

          He shoulda been. What a humorless loser.

      3. First ask – “Am I free to leave?”

        No. Then you are being detained, and when you are being detained, the only words out of your mouth should be, ‘I want to talk to my lawyer.’

        1. Don’t trust yourself. The amount of legal jeopardy you are in is quite significant. One small misstep on your part can get you in the slammer. You probably should have invited your lawyer expenses paid for on the trip with you. Exaggerate? Not really. That is how fucked post 9-11 America is. In any other situation with this magnitude of legal jeopardy hanging over your head, it would have been malpractice for your lawyer to say, ‘go on with out me. You’ll do fine at the border station.’

  8. So, my new evul overlord plans will be stored on dropbox, which I’ll only access via private browsing using Opera. Meanwhile, I’ll have all sorts of fun stuff like applications for law enforcement positions cached in my Chrome, Firefox and IE browsers.

    Gee, it took me 35 seconds to come up with a viable plan for overcoming this checkpoint.

    1. Truecrypt with the steganography option going. Sure, here’s the password.

  9. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating that innocent people have DIED because of this policy:
    “The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accidents was the failure of the United States Border Patrol and the New York State Department of Transportation to provide adequate warning of the checkpoint’s presence in the southbound lanes of the interstate and to convey a clear, simple message that all vehicular traffic would be required to stop for the checkpoint. …”


    1. eggs, omelets, fuckyouthatswhy, etc

  10. What would have happened if he had refused to give up his password?

    1. He’d never see his computer in one piece again.

    1. But he added: “Our people don’t have a crime lab up there. They can’t look at a chain saw and decide if it’s blood or rust or red paint.”

      Do they have noses?

      1. My wife and I find this whole story a hoot (except for the grisly murders). And that is our favorite quote, too. Like, if you’re not sure if it’s blood or rust, on the chainsaw, go ahead and assume it’s blood. I’m not a cop, or a highly trained border agent but when a guy walks up with a hatchet, sword, knucks, and a chainsaw, I’d be thinking, “It’s probably blood.”

        1. Still doesn’t mean anything. It could be moose blood. Don’t Canadians regularly cut up moose with chainsaws?

          1. Yeah, and they’re always cutting up red paint cans in the rain. It’s a quandary.

            1. that’s the proper method of disposing of old paint cans, aint it?

    2. That guy would actually kill them, unlike the people they detain.

      1. I don’t doubt that factored into their decision to wave him through.

        1. Bullies don’t target people who they think will fight back.

      2. I hate to spoil a good joke, but they did detain him for two hours, according to the article and tried really hard to find a reason to arrest him. Since he was a US citizen they had to let him through. If he’d had a laptop, they probably could have kept it going for a few more hours, apparently.

        1. “tried really hard to find a reason to arrest him”

          chainsaw covered in human blood doesn’t do it, huh?

    3. Holy shit, those are probably the craziest crazy eyes I’ve ever seen.

      1. I think Loughner still has him beat.

  11. If the Empire had TSA on Tatooine, R2D2 would have been toast.

    1. Um, since The Force works on the weak-minded, I think Obi-Wan would have been fine to get the droids past the checkpoint.

      1. “This isn’t the porn you’re looking for.”

      2. Au contraire! IT works on the weak minded yes, but giant slugs are immune.

        1. Are you calling the Huts “giant slugs?” They are the most free market-minded beings in that galaxy far, far away.

          They may not be the most virile, but I’d hardly call them slugs. And Jabba always had sweet-ass poon in his palace. Would a slug have this going on?

      3. I think Obi-Wan would have been fine to get the droids past the checkpoint.

        Are you describing an actual scene in the movie as a hypothetical?

    2. If the Empire had TSA on Tatooine, R2D2 would have been toast.

      Not necessarily. It’s likely that R2D2 would get through fine, but Luke’s Aunty would have been strip-searched every time she left the farm.

      1. If Padme shows up again, I’m calling dibs on working the backscatter that day.

        1. I’m no longer the semi-regular traveler I used to be, so I’m a bit provincial when it comes to flying (shows up at airports with straw hat, carpet bag and cutoff overalls), but I didn’t get backscattered anywhere on my recent trip to Hawaii.

          Flew through SEA, SFO, Vancouver BC, Honolulu.

          No backscatter. Are those machines not yet up everywhere, or are we getting backscattered automatically when we walk through the metal detector?

          1. They are still being rolled out. I don’t think SFO has them, but I know LAX and Ontario (CA) do.

  12. Rick Santorum dropping out…

  13. If I ever travel abroad again, and if I bring a laptop with me, I figure I’ll put anything personal or sensitve on an IronKey, which I’ll keep separately in my luggage. The laptop itself will be clear of anything sensitive or personal, and I’ll gladly give them the password. If they happen across the USB drive, good luck getting into it. Of course, this plan doesn’t take into account the possibility that they’ll keep my laptop out of spite.

    1. Or just steal your ironkey.

  14. It’ll be very interesting to watch how this case turns out. The EFF has detailed instructions on how deal with the nice people at Customs, and there was a long article in the Times a month or two ago:…..-a-laptop/
    Unfortunately our masters have asserted unlimited power at the border, and mostly the courts have agreed with them. There are cases where folks have refused to give up passwords and simply lost their machines. And, with the unlimited time and resources of the United States Government, probably any locked laptop could eventually be unlocked, Trucrypt or not.
    So I’ll be rooting for this guy.

  15. As an aerospace engineer my laptop contains code and data that is ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) protected. They would have to provide proof that they are US citizens and had the requisite security levels before I could let them see it. If I let them look at it without them providing the required proof I could be liable for civil and criminal charges. If they went ahead anyway they could be liable for criminal charges (not likely). Bet this would make for an interesting case in court.

  16. I used to be a very regular (weekly) flier and took several international flights a year, but that was before things got this insane.

    Now I only fly 2-4 times a year for business haven’t been international for a while. However, I’ve had to opt out of backscatter three times in the past half year, and it’s been getting more frequent. My position is that if you’re going to violate my civil rights, I’m going to make you do it to my face (or to my crotch, as it were). Also, the physical pat-downs don’t scale. It would only take a fairly small sample (10-20%?) to demand “alternate screening” to bring the system to its knees as wait times at busy airport security areas soared.

    If traveling internationally again and I had time on my hands — maybe after retirement — I’d be inclined to bring a “throw-away” laptop and pack it full of pgp-encrypted files with innocuous content but names like “Jihad” and “Apocalypse,” refuse to provide any passwords, and make myself a test case.

  17. “loathe to see them swiped” — Where are the editors? That should be “loath” in this instance. It matters. Not as much as reining in the power of our police state appartachiks, but it does matter, JUST enough for me to expend this energy to mention it. Ta-ta!

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