Canadian Border Patrol Charge Traveler With 'Obstruction' For Refusing To Give Up His Phone Password

from the don't-travel-to-canada dept

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:

A Quebec man charged with obstructing border officials by refusing to give up his smartphone password says he will fight the charge.


Philippon had arrived in Halifax on a flight from Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. He’s been charged under section 153.1 (b) of the Customs Act for hindering or preventing border officers from performing their role under the act.

According to the CBSA, the minimum fine for the offence is $1,000, with a maximum fine of $25,000 and the possibility of a year in jail.

In the US, there have been a number of cases concerning searches of computers and electronic devices at the border, with an unfortunately large number saying that you really don’t have privacy rights at the border. Of course, it’s not universal, as at least one important court has ruled otherwise. Up in Canada, however, there apparently hasn’t been much caselaw on this issue, so assuming Philippon fights this, it could make for a very interesting case.

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Comments on “Canadian Border Patrol Charge Traveler With 'Obstruction' For Refusing To Give Up His Phone Password”

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nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

If this were to be a US story they would not charge him with obstruction. They would either refuse him entry into the country unless he complied or they would hold the phone and any other electronics in his possession and make life hell in getting his stuff back.

I don’t know that it would be one or the other. It seems likely they would both charge him with one or more felonies and seize his stuff.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’ve heard of plenty of horror stories at the Canadian border at my company. One of my co-workers was even flat out told by a Canadian border agent that if it wasn’t for NAFTA they wouldn’t have even let him in.

Another of my co-workers was an idiot when they started to question him, asking him “could a Canadian do the job you’re here to do”. The co-worker basically said “well yeah I guess I’m just taking a job away from a good hard working Canadian”, and was denied entry to Canada.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Lots of Canadians are angry with the US and they retaliate by making it personal.

It’s routine for Canadian citizens driving to Florida for winter vacation to be stopped and shaken down by the police. Since the US Gov’t now allows for money and property to be confiscated a lot of Canadian citizens are suddenly finding themselves with no car or cash on the side of the highway. We hear of and read these stories almost daily in the Canadian press-of course there’s going to be retaliation by the Canadian version of TSA/Homeland Security. And, it will get worse, if Trudeau becomes PM expect the next POTUS and his entourage to get the “treatment” when he comes to Canada on official business.

Anonymous Coward says:

I wonder what kind of stealth methods/software, like steganography or hidden partitions, are available to hide things on tablets/phones like you can easily do on computers?

Glenn Greenwald’s husband’s refusal to reveal his password resulted in the US/UK government [apparently] cracking it open almost instantly, suggesting that either he was a fool who used a very weak password (or maybe relying the Windows XP password?) — or governments have some extremely powerful computers at their disposal. …. More likely the latter.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

But why should they even care? You’re not likely to be “smuggling” things in on your phone. The only thing that could be on your phone is ethereal proprietary IP which can just as easily be emailed, or dropboxed or transmitted any number of ways. And if did have something, Customs wouldn’t even know it if they saw it.

The odds of randomly catching someone is so infinitesimal it’s a waste of time.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

…can just as easily be emailed, or dropboxed or transmitted any number of ways.

Those email, DropBox and other cloud accounts are all accessed from my phone. That’s the whole point of cloud services, letting me access them from anywhere.

Even with separate passwords, it’s not a big leap from demanding your phone password to demanding the passwords for services set up on your phone. For many people, the demanded password to get into their phone will provide access to their email, cloud and social media accounts with no further security checks needed.

Many people – especially those who provide tech support – have other people’s passwords and other personal information. Handing it all to border officials – who knows where it will go from there – is a big deal. The government doesn’t have a great record for keeping data secret.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

the price of freedom is eternal vigilance

roll your own. don’t depend on free cloud services

flatten & reinstall before you leave.

and one “app” to rule them all: the web browser. no bookmarks, never remember history/delete on exit; problem solved

not that i have anything to hide, but its NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS what i do

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

roll your own. don’t depend on free cloud services

Funny you should mention that. I have a static IP address with my own web server and mail/calendar/document server. (It has an excellent web interface.) I have a network drive – one of those “own your own cloud” devices – also accessible via an app across the internet.

But my phone and table log into the mail/calendar/document server, protected only by both device’s passwords. Once a border official has those passwords, they have access to a whole lot of information not actually on the devices.

The official could also load the app for the drive, but I’ve told that to NOT store the password. Still, if the official can demand the password for the phone, he can demand passwords for apps on the phone.

Your solution is what I’ve said above: If you’re crossing a border, you might want to remove all email accounts, cloud service apps and any signs that you use one.

A border official will find the lack of email accounts and other apps “suspicious.”

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I wonder what kind of stealth methods/software, like steganography or hidden partitions, are available to hide things on tablets/phones like you can easily do on computers?”

A quick Google search shows numerous stenography apps on all major portable OSes. I’m not sure how good/effective they actually are, but they certainly seem to exist.

“More likely the latter.”

Nope, he simply had the typical layman’s approach to security:

As ever, the weak link was the human factor. I’m sure they have some capabilities, but brute force against good encryption is never the first option.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I wonder what kind of stealth methods/software, like steganography or hidden partitions, are available to hide things on tablets/phones like you can easily do on computers?”

All of them. Tablets/phones are computers, just with a phone system attached, and if the phone is Android then it’s Linux — and you can do all the same partitioning tricks, etc. that you can do on any other Linux computer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I misspoke there but the point is still the same. Yes iOS is BSD derived which is based on System V architecture which is different than Linux. However those differences are mostly organizational in nature rather than functionality as it relates to the topic at hand. The fact is that almost all UNIX derived systems that have not been stripped down for a specialized purpose contain those same features.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“You can’t do ALL of the same things but there are plenty that you can do.”

There probably are some things you can’t do, but I haven’t found them yet. However, you can’t do them with the stock ROM out of the box. You need to root the device, and from there you can replace the crippled versions of important Linux binaries with the real ones. I also have recompiled a number of desktop linux tools and run them on my phone without issue.

In other words, if you treat your tablet/phone as if it were a general purpose computer, then it behaves like a general purpose computer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Nuttiness in NZ too:

“Customs is seeking the automatic right to require people to disclose passwords to their electronic devices when entering New Zealand.

Failing to do so without reasonable excuse should be an offence punishable by three months prison, Customs has suggested.

It said the power would be useful in helping detect objectionable material and evidence of other offending, such as drugs offences, as well as to verify people’s travel plans.”


mattshow (profile) says:

I dug around for some Canadian caselaw on this last year and all I came up with was a single Quebec Court of Appeal case: R. c. Boudreau-Fontaine.

There, at least, the judge was firmly of the opinion that compelling an individual to divulge their password was unacceptable.

[39] I note that it orders the respondent to disclose his password#s# [translation] “in order to establish that the computer was connected to the Internet by Mr. Boudreau-Fontaine, thus breaching the conditions of his probation.” In other words, the justice of the peace was commanding the appellant to give essential information with the specific intent of having him incriminate himself. I cannot see how the criminal law can allow such an order. It should be noted that the respondent complied with the order but that he certainly would not have done so without it, proof being that he refused to speak with the police officers about the events of September 19 when he was arrested. As the respondent wrote in his written argument, this order raises the issues of the right to silence, the right to be presumed innocent, the right not to be conscripted against oneself, and the protection against self-incrimination. Commanded to participate in the police investigation and to give crucial information, contrary to his constitutional rights, the respondent made a statement #identification of his password# that is inadmissible and that renders the subsequent seizure of the data unreasonable. In short, even had the seizure been preceded by judicial authorization, the law will not allow an order to be joined compelling the respondent to self-incriminate.

[40] In R. v. Hebert, 1990 CanLII 118 #SCC#, [1990] 2 S.C.R. 151 at para. 47, McLachlin J. writes:

… the right to silence may be postulated to reside in the notion that a person whose liberty is placed in jeopardy by the criminal process cannot be required to give evidence against himself or herself, but rather has the right to choose whether to speak or to remain silent.

[41] Without necessarily being detained, the respondent was compelled to participate in his self-incrimination and was given no choice in the matter: he had to help the police officers convict him. This approach is unacceptable.

But of course, things are different at the border.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“It’s awfully hard to prove that you don’t know something.”

One word: waterboarding.

Just waterboard the guy to within an inch of his life, and especially after months or years of that, and he’ll be confessing everything he knows, as well as a lot of made-up things, but talk he will. When all his forcibly-extracted confessions lead to dead ends, then he’s obviously lying –and therefore innocent– and can be released to make room for the next waterboardee.

… and the next, and the next, and the next, until you finally find someone whose confessions of crime actually pan out — proving that torture works!

Anonymous Coward says:

Bruce Schneier's Border Crossing Tips

Step One: Before you board your plane, add another key to your whole-disk encryption (it’ll probably mean adding another “user”) — and make it random. By “random,” I mean really random: Pound the keyboard for a while, like a monkey trying to write Shakespeare. Don’t make it memorable. Don’t even try to memorize it.

Technically, this key doesn’t directly encrypt your hard drive. Instead, it encrypts the key that is used to encrypt your hard drive — that’s how the software allows multiple users.

So now there are two different users named with two different keys: the one you normally use, and some random one you just invented.

Step Two: Send that new random key to someone you trust. Make sure the trusted recipient has it, and make sure it works. You won’t be able to recover your hard drive without it.

Step Three: Burn, shred, delete or otherwise destroy all copies of that new random key. Forget it. If it was sufficiently random and non-memorable, this should be easy.

Step Four: Board your plane normally and use your computer for the whole flight.

Step Five: Before you land, delete the key you normally use.

At this point, you will not be able to boot your computer. The only key remaining is the one you forgot in Step Three. There’s no need to lie to the customs official; you can even show him a copy of this article if he doesn’t believe you.

Step Six: When you’re safely through customs, get that random key back from your confidant, boot your computer and re-add the key you normally use to access your hard drive.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is all the work of that creep Stephen Harper. He’s losing ground and will most likely be out and his “Conservative” party too, when you have Albertans questioning whether they will vote Conservative or not you know he’s in deep shit.

But yeah, a judge ruled not long ago that cops were not allowed to search your phone in the US, in Canada the opposite happened. We have something that should be even better than the Bill of Rights, the Canadian Charter of Freedom and Liberties which is attached to the Constitution…but Harper just ignores it, he somehow gets away with it, because his base are in a way even more repugnant than the Republican base. Be glad that creep can’t be President of the US. His hubris knows no bounds, thankfully he spent most of his reign in a minority government being blocked at every oppurtunity. He’d be so pissed off to end up in minority again this October that he would probably start playing his cards more rashly and have Canadians hate him even more. Remember,the guy got in with a 38% vote with a majority government in 2011, he doesn’t represent Canada or Canadian values at all, considering most who vote for him don’t even know why. The first time he got in as minority it was only “for a change! we want change! 16 years of the Liberals is too much!”. Well, I hope they see what a really evil sonofabitch they voted randomly in for the sake of change.

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