Civil Liberties

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.