Monday, July 11, 2011

Is the government a friend or foe?

A few days ago I saw a clip by CBS News reporting on an incident that occurred at the Canadian border between U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and a young man who was searched, questioned and detained. We have heard stories where travelers have been pulled aside either for “random searches” or if a red flag appears in the system as the traveler passes through customs. Pascal Abidor is an American citizen who has frequently made trips from Canada to the US, so why was this trip so different. Pascal’s numerous trips to the various Middle Eastern countries of Jordan, Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon rose suspicions among the Border Patrol. It is understandable from an officer’s point of view to be suspicious of someone who has continued to travel to the Middle East, an area that is infamous for its hostility towards its own people and the U.S. Even still the procedure that was taken was a bit over the top.

All of his personal effects were searched including his electronic devices, which is what makes this story so interesting. Since when and why does national security include searching laptops? Border Patrol asked Abidor to turn on his laptop so they may search files that have been stored, including pictures. Some of those photos he had downloaded from the internet of Islamic militants that were to be used for research as an Islamic Studies major; these photos were seen as a threat. Officials escorted Abidor for further inappropriate questioning, leading to his arrest and seizure of his laptop for eleven days.
A law has not been set to allow government officials to specifically search electronic devices. So it is not strange for travelers to believe that their civil rights are being infringed upon when allowing officials to search electronics. CBS News reported that since 2008 there have been 11,890 travelers subjected to searches of electronic devices. If this is a new procedure that will be implemented at airports and borders then a law should in place that specifically mentions that it is lawful for such searches to be conducted. Creating such a law will put travelers more at ease when they are asked to have their personal items searched. A major reason why people may be hesitant to allow a search of a laptop is the amount of private information that is stored in memory. For example, laptops are used to pay bills which can store banking information even after one has cleared their cookies. Someone who is technologically savvy can press a few keys and go deep into the computer’s brain and be able to retrieve the banking information. Even though it is the government we are dealing with one can never be too careful when protecting their personal information.
CBS News reported that there must be “reasonable suspicion” for a search to be conducted, if not it violates ones “Constitutional rights to privacy and free speech.”  Government attorneys stated in the CBS News report that border agents have more leeway than police when it comes to searches in that a warrant is not always required. Doesn’t common sense say that if you need a search warrant to accomplish a task, then what you’re doing will be infringing upon my civil rights without one? The key word used in the written report was “traditionally,” which can be interpreted as a custom but not a law. If the country based their methods of enforcement on customs then this would be an unstable country. Laws provide stability, comfort and guidance. The laws are clear-cut in what is right and what is wrong, thereby giving citizens a clear understanding of what their rights are. In the case of Abidor what was the “reasonable suspicion,” his many trips to the Middle East? When is it a crime for someone to enjoy travelling? Why couldn’t personnel make the connection that Abidor is an Islamic Studies student and his travels could be part of his research? For someone to be treated as a criminal though they have no criminal record is cause for protest. Technically since there is no law stating laptop searches can be conducted, are our Constitutional rights could be seen as violated. The government is trying to protect us but should that include an invasion of privacy. How much can we truly trust the intentions of the government? 

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