It’s pretty common knowledge. You cross the United States border with your laptop, mobile phone, whatever, and you run the risk of some customs person deciding that’s a nice piece of equipment you’ve got there and he’ll just be taking a closer look at it if you don’t mind. Courts have been okay with this for the most part–part of the reason I haven’t lost much sleep about returning to the US any time soon. And now, like so much other American culture, the practice is moving north.
I’ve traveled to many different countries in my life and the only time I’ve ever had any trouble at all at a border crossing was flying into Canada for a conference one time. I was pulled out of the line and sent to a special side room where I was quizzed about the real reasons I was coming to Canada. They couldn’t believe I was speaking at a conference, because I didn’t have a paper invite, and had to dig through my emails to show them it in email (thankfully, I stored my emails locally and didn’t need internet access). When I tell that story it shocks some people, as Canada has always had a reputation as a fairly easy border to cross — especially for Americans.
But apparently the Canadians are stepping up their crazy antagonism at the border. The latest story involve Alain Philippon, a Canadian citizen who was returning from a trip to the Dominican Republic. Upon landing in Halifax he was ordered to cough up the password to his smartphone, and upon refusing, was charged with obstructing border officials.
The charge has the potential to carry up to a year’s jail time–all for not turning over access to his phone to a guy with no reason to have it. Now, I’ve had my share of overly nosey border patrol folks. You know. Playing twenty questions just because you kind of don’t have much choice but to sit there and put up with it if you plan to actually get into the country–where are you coming from, where are you going, for how long, who are you meeting there, how much do you make a year (yes, I was asked that), etc. It’s become pretty standard operating procedure even before everyone got all security paranoid after 9/11. But seriously, if I wanted to sneak something across the border and didn’t want the US (or Canadian) agents there to find it, the last place I’d store the thing is locally on the laptop, phone, tablet, whichever. I’m trying not to get caught, remember. So odds are good I’ve stashed whatever I need on a remote server somewhere they don’t know exists and therefore couldn’t ask me for its password, deleted my local copy of that thing, and the only thing they’d see on a scroll through my phone are emails/text messages to my girlfriend on my way out, and quite probably a whole heap of sports notifications. Not exactly crossing a legal line, here, but at least partially crossing a privacy one. And for that, they’d need to do a lot more than ask me for my password. Or, you know, they could at least say please–it’s the Canadian way.