McGill student Pascal Abidor challenging U.S. border practice of seizing phones, laptops

Steve Mertl
Daily BrewApril 9, 2012

A McGill University grad student is awaiting a ruling from a U.S. court that challenges the practice of U.S. border guards of seizing computers and other electronics and searching them for no reason.

Pascal Abidor filed suit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection after the Brooklyn, N.Y., resident was detained back in 2010 on one of his many trips home.

Abidor, who has dual French and American citizenship, was on an Amtrak train that stopped for routine inspection at Champlain, N.Y. When border protection officers learned he was working on his doctorate in Islamic studies at McGill, they took him aside.

The Canadian Press reports agents turned on his laptop computer and discovered photos of rallies by the militant group Hamas. Abidor explained he'd downloaded them via Google as part of his doctoral dissertation on the modern history of Shiites in Lebanon.

They also inspected his passport and found he had travelled between Jordan and Lebanon.

Abidor found himself handcuffed, taken off the train and put into a holding cell for several hours. After being grilled over his interest in Islam and Middle Eastern travels, Abidor, who is not Muslim, was released and took a bus to Brooklyn.

But the agents kept his laptop for 11 days and when it was returned there was evidence many of his personal files had been opened, he said.

Abidor, who'd crossed the border many times without trouble, said he spent days in an "unhealthy mix of rage and fear."

"I thought to myself, 'I'm going to at least try to do something to make a stink out of this,' " he told The Canadian Press.

With support from the American Civil Liberties Union, Abidor filed suit, contending a 2009 policy enacted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security allowing agents to seize and search electronic devices without reasonable suspicion, the McGill Daily reported.

Under the policy, devices can be held indefinitely and the information they contain can be copied and shared. According to the ACLU, more than 6,600 people had their devices searched between October 2008 and June 2010, about 22 per cent of them Canadians.

"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 told The Canadian Press.

"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."

Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler said these inspections are only performed "in limited circumstances to ensure that dangerous people and unlawful goods do not enter our country."

The department's privacy officer defends the policy in an article on its web site.

Abidor's lawyers argued in U.S. federal court that the search was unconstitutional but the government wants the case thrown out.

The two sides are awaiting a ruling on whether to dismiss his suit.