MONTREAL - A Montreal university student was detained at the U.S. border, held for several hours, interrogated, had his personal belongings searched and saw his computer confiscated for over a week.
What caught the authorities' attention? His doctoral research on Islamic studies, he says.
In a case that has attracted media attention in the U.S., Pascal Abidor has become embroiled in a drawn-out legal battle with the American government — and a poster child for civil-rights advocates defending the right to privacy and due process.
Abidor, a 28-year-old American and French dual citizen, was returning by train to Brooklyn in May 2010 when a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent stopped him at the border in Champlain, N.Y.
The agent turned on Abidor's computer and found photos of rallies by the Hamas militant group. He says he explained that he had downloaded them from Google as part of his McGill University doctoral dissertation on the modern history of Shiites in Lebanon.
The agent also saw stamps in his passport that showed he had travelled between Jordan and Lebanon.
Abidor said the agents handcuffed him, took him off the train and kept him in a holding cell for several hours. He was grilled over his interest in Islam and past trips to the Middle East, before he was let go at the border. He was able to catch a ride on a bus passing through the border and continue to Brooklyn.
When Abidor's laptop was returned 11 days later, there was evidence that many of his personal files, including research, photos and chats with his girlfriend, had been opened, he said.
Abidor, who isn't Muslim, said the experience was eye-opening. It was the first such incident in the many times he had passed through the Canadian-American border.
In the days that followed, he had trouble sleeping and developed an "unhealthy mix of rage and fear," Abidor said in a recent interview in Montreal.
"Ridiculous and absurd are the words that come to mind," he said of the episode.
"I thought to myself, 'I'm going to at least try to do something to make a stink out of this.'"
Civil rights groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, took up his case, and filed a lawsuit on his behalf in September 2010.
The lawsuit contests policies adopted by U.S. government agencies permitting the search of all electronic devices that contain information, including laptops, cameras, mobile phones and smart phones.
More than 6,600 people had their electronic devices searched as they crossed U.S. borders between October 2008 and June 2010, according to the ACLU. Some 22 per cent of those people — 1,477 of them — were Canadians, the most of any nationality besides American.
"We've received many complaints over the years about people having their electronic devices searched and even seized at the border, and in some cases held onto for a very long time," Abidor's lawyer Catherine Crump said in an interview.
"The government asserts that when it comes to electronic devices, people who cross the border have no rights. They argue that they can take your cell phone or laptop and keep them as long as they like."
Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has said inspections of electronic media are used only "in limited circumstances to ensure that dangerous people and unlawful goods do not enter our country."
Chandler said the department "has been transparent about these searches,'' with the policies and a privacy impact assessment of them available on the department's website.
But Crump argues that the practice violates the U.S.'s first amendment right to free speech, because laptops "contain so much protected, expressive material," and also violates the fourth amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
With the amount of data stored on laptops and other electronic devices, Crump said the practice is a major intrusion.
"You shouldn't have to risk that the government is going to go through your family photographs and financial information just because you choose to cross the border," she said.
"They (border guards) have to have some reason to think that a search will turn up evidence of a wrongdoing. It doesn't mean that they have to have an airtight case, but they do have to have something."
A federal judge heard arguments in July 2011 by the U.S. government for throwing out the lawsuit.
While Abidor’s lawyers argued the search was unconstitutional, the government said it has the right to search belongings at the border without cause.
The judge has yet to rule on whether he will dismiss the case.
Canada and the U.S. are each other's largest trading partners. More than $1.5-billion in goods cross the border each day. The "Action Plan on Perimeter Security and Economic Competiveness" is a road map, not a formal agreement, aimed at making trade and travel across the border easier and more efficient. <blockquote>The plan focuses on four key areas. 1. Addressing threats early 2. Trade and economic growth 3. Building on existing border enforcement programs 4. Emergency and cyber infrastructure</blockquote>
Canada and the U.S. will be making a number of changes aimed at addressing security threats as early as possible and reducing the impact on trade and travel. The two countries will: <blockquote>1. Begin tracking and recording entry and exit of travellers across the border and verifying the identity of foreigners for the purposes of immigration decision making. 2. Begin conducting joint threat assessments and sharing core information. 3. Working together on developing best practices to counter threats from violent extremists. 4. Begin aligning ground- and air-cargo security to reduce the need for re-screening. Canadian travellers will no longer have their bags screened twice when transferring flights in the United States.</blockquote>
Canada and the U.S. will be making a number of changes aimed at facilitating trade and economic growth <blockquote>The two countries will: 1. Expand programs for low-risk travellers, such as NEXUS, to make border crossing more efficient. 2. Upgrade infrastructure at key crossings to ease congestion. 3. Begin using radio frequency identification technology to read documents automatically as vehicles approach the border. 4. Create a unified approach for preclearing goods crossing by rail, sea or road. 5. Set up a single window for companies to send required info only once. 6. Make it easier for low-value shipments to clear customs </blockquote>
Canada and the U.S. will make a number of changes to existing border enforcement programs. <blockquote>The two countries will: 1. Make Shiprider a permanent program. The Shiprider program allows U.S. and Canadian maritime law enforcement officials to operate independent of the border to help combat crime. 2. Begin testing the Shiprider model for land enforcement. This means Canadian officials may work on the U.S. side of the border and vice versa. 3. Begin using voice-over-Internet technology so law enforcement officials can communicate across the border with greater ease. </blockquote>
Canada and the U.S. will be making a number of changes aimed at enhancing emergency and cyber infrastructure. <blockquote>The two countries will: 1. Work together more closely on international cyber-security efforts. 2. Enhance joint readiness for health, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear events. 3. Jointly develop strategies for managing traffic on the border in the event of an emergency. </blockquote>
Both governments are stressing the all the initiatives in the plan were developed under two principles. <blockquote>1. That each nation has the right to act independent of the other in accordance with their own laws and interests. 2. That both countries will endeavour to promote human rights, privacy, the rule of law and civil liberties.</blockquote>