CBSA laptop search documents

Posted on by

In late February, shortly after the story we posted about the Canada Border Services Agency delaying our request for documents on their policies on searching laptops and other personal electronics, a slim brown envelope arrived in our office. The response came just over two weeks after the extended deadline the CBSA set for itself had expired. The delay was frustrating, but not nearly as long as we’d feared given the abysmal state of access to information responses from other governmental agencies.

Image: jasonunbound on Flickr

Now that we’ve had a chance to go through the documents, there were few surprises. The documents provided by the CBSA were disorganized and still fail to provide a clear and complete picture of CBSA policies and practices on data search and retention. In the end, the documents raised more questions than they answered, but are fairly interesting in their own right, if only for the glimpse into the institutional culture of the CBSA they can provide.

Many categories of important information were completely redacted or exempted from disclosure. Some of the redactions were legitimate—legal opinions, for instance, would generally be covered by solicitor-client privilege. Other omissions were less convincing, and the practice of redacting in white rather than in black left it unclear whether information was missing or not. Some areas of the request were completely ignored or omitted. For instance, we asked for statistics on how many searches of personal electronics had been conducted. These statistics were not even referred to in the documents provided.

The BCCLA has filed another complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner, this time regarding the exemptions and redactions from the documents provided by the CBSA in response to our request. For now, here’s a review of some of the highlights of the documents we have received:

The consistent:

  • CBSA policy states that “the difference between a paper document and information stored electronically is only the medium it is stored on” (A-2009-01850-Vol2 on p. 5). We can think of lots of other differences—the kind and quantity of information that is regularly brought across the border by travellers bringing their laptops and smart phones, for instance—but this fits with what we had learned about CBSA search practices.
  • The CBSA spends a lot of time thinking about child pornography. We’d always assumed this was the case, but the documents show that an entire chapter of the Customs Enforcement Manual is dedicated to the subject (A-2009-01850-Vol4).
  • The CBSA can and does perform laptop searches at random, but “will only scan or peruse a document to the extent necessary to either confirm or negate its association to an offence or intelligence concern” (A-2009-01850-Vol2 on p. 2).
  • Most screening is not at random, relying instead on various “indicators” including “known importers, exporters, known export locations (specific locations or geographical areas), the nature of the goods being imported (commodities known to be suspect) and/or information disseminated through regional or headquarters intelligence channels. … Officers should also be aware of high-risk geographical locations for child sex tourism” (A-2009-01850-Vol4 at p. 6). Specific indicators and suspect nations were redacted from the documents CBSA provided us. However, from court documents filed in the case of former Bishop Raymond Lahey, we know that “border officials flagged Lahey because he was a man travelling alone and his passport showed several trips to Southeast Asia, Germany, Spain and other areas known for child pornography”.
  • Screening also relies on various databases, including the Integrated Primary Inspection Line system (IPIL) and Integrated Customs Enforcement System (ICES) for primary screening, and Field Operations Support System (FOSS), the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the sex offender database, Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS), and Police Information Records System for secondary screening (PIRS) (A-2009-01850-Vol6 on p. 14).
  • The “Electronic Media Search Form” sets out a lot of what CBSA officers are looking for when they decide to search a computer. Officers will look for user accounts visible on the login screen, note the operating system, any encryption, and provides space for passwords provided, but also a box for “password not located”. There are also suggested image and keyword searches to guide officers (A-2009-01850-Vol6 on p. 6-8).

  • The CBSA has software to assist border agents with laptop searches. If, after an initial search, the border agent feels further scrutiny is required, he or she uses software called ICWhatUC to scan images stored on the traveller’s hard drive. ICWhatUC only works on Windows machines. It scans for image files on a computer, including images in the web browser’s cache, image files with strange file extensions (like .doc instead of .jpg) and files in the recycle bin. Deleted files and files in archives do not show up. We’ve purchased a copy of the law enforcement version of ICWhatUC and will be doing an analysis of its capabilities and limitations in another post this month.

The weird:

  • A Powerpoint presentation illustrates the physical size of media that it is possible to store on media of various capacities. For instance, “one meter (or close to a yard) of shelved books” is about 100 megabytes, while a “pickup truck filled with books” is about 500 megabytes of data (A-2009-01850-Vol7 on p. 4). A USB key could “contain a stack of paper (8.5×11), 35 feet higher than the CN tower” that “would take two years to print @ 24/7″ (A-2009-01850-Vol7 on p. 1).
  • Another bizarre Powerpoint charts porn vs. time, showing that every second $3075 is spent on pornography, 28258 internet users are viewing pornography, and 372 people are typing adult search terms into search engines (A-2009-01850-Vol7 on p. 3). It follows this information up with statistics on youth viewing pornography, and then directly to statistics on seizures of child pornography (p. 4). This disingenuous attempt to link legal, adult pornography with the production and distribution of child pornography in its training materials may be part of the reason for CBSA’s continued targeting of legal materials it finds objectionable, like artsy queer films.
  • A chart breaks down the difference between “child pornography” and “not child pornography”, in case there was any confusion (A-2009-01850-Vol4 on p. 16). This chart seems to be common sense, but given some of the ridiculous accusations that have been made in the past, it’s probably a good thing that CBSA agents are provided with this handy cheat sheet:

A later document notes another example: “Japanese Anime – most not child porn” (A-2009-01850-Vol6 on p. 13).

The missing:

Five key areas were not addressed adequately (or at all) in the CBSA’s response to our request:

  1. Criteria for selection of individuals for device inspection. Information was referred to, and some information provided, but the contents of these sections were heavily redacted.
  2. Policies for copying and retention of electronic information. Some information was provided, but it only referred to cases where potentially criminal conduct was detected during the CBSA’s initial search. Further information is required here.
  3. Statistics on the number and kinds of devices inspected.
  4. Demographic information on individuals whose devices have been inspected.
  5. Policies for the distribution of electronic information copied from electronic devices to other government agencies.

These areas make up the substance of our second complaint to the Information Commissioner.

Overall, the CBSA’s lack of transparency on this important issue is discouraging. While their policies on searches appear to be quite similar, the CBSA has not been as forthcoming with information as even the secretive U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which has made its policy publicly available.

The documents:

As promised, we’ve made all the documents we received available online. Download them and have a look through them yourself. If you see anything of special note, have your own story of having your electronics searched at the Canadian border, or have something to add, please let us know in the comments or by email: [greg]@[bccla].[org]

3 thoughts on “CBSA laptop search documents

  1. Following is text of letter sent today to CBSA concerning my recent Canada-entry experience, FYI.

    24 July 2013
    Canada Border Services Agency
    Recourse Directorate
    Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0L8
    Dear Sir or Madam:
    I am writing concerning the offensive, inappropriate and unprofessional treatment I was subjected to by three CBSA employees upon my recent entry into Canada at Toronto Pearson Airport on 26 June 2013.
    I will not relate every detail of this unfortunate, 3 hour-long encounter, but following are a few of the more offensive highlights:
    • The encounter began with the first inspector demanding to know if I had ever been to Cuba; when I reminded him that my previous travel was none of his business he informed me that he was ”tired of arrogant Americans” and of his intent to put me ”in my place.”
    • He then demanded a ”printed itinerary;” I informed him that I hadn’t used a printed itinerary in many years, and only had it in electronic form, which I voluntarily shared with him. The itinerary software I use displays all my planned trips, and he quickly ignored my Canadian travels upon noticing that my next planned trip (in October) is to Indochina (again, none of his concern) and announced in an Inspector Clouseau-esque tone, ”Ah-HA!, you’re going to Indo-China!,” as if he had just discovered Jimmy Hoffa’s head in my carry-on.
    • Speaking of carrying on, he carried on announcing the discovery of each fact about myself and my belongings during the subsequent thorough and entirely unjustified search of my belongings with the same sort of offensive, accusatory announcement: “Ah-HA! You’ve been to Yemen!;” “AH-Ha!, you own green socks!” (or something to that effect).
    • Despite my strong objections that my laptop contained: a) proprietary information belonging to my employer, b) personal information concerning upcoming medical treatment subject to Doctor-Patient confidentiality, and c) information concerning on-going legal action to which I am a party and which is therefore subject to attorney-client privilege, he and a colleague insisted on spending the next few hours perusing the files in my laptop. Subsequent forensic analysis by my employer’s IT team revealed that they spent most of their time looking at – and no doubt copying for their own use – my collection of pornography.
    • Amongst my belongings were two valuable Tibetan mandalas, which were carefully packed for transport so that I could deliver them to a temple in Michigan. Again, despite my vigorous objections, this agent removed them from their packing, and handled them with his bare hands. I made very clear that I had no objection to them being inspected by suitably qualified personnel who were trained in and familiar with appropriate procedures for handling of artwork, but he insisted that he had “the right to do whatever he wanted” with my belongings and proceeded to mis-handle and damage them.
    • These two agents then insisted I wait in another area while they went through my electronics, rather than allowing me to observe; hence I had no idea what was done to these devices. As a result, our IT department has had to spend hours checking them for viruses, Trojans, or keystroke loggers, and I and other employees are now forbidden to bring our laptops to Canada unless the contents are protected with strong encryption and password protected. I have also been warned that providing my password to any third party without a valid subpoena or court order may result in my termination. In attempting to encrypt the contents of my laptop, I have found that the encrypted files take up more space, and therefore I do not have adequate room on my hard drive. So now I either need to buy a new computer, or spend hours getting rid of un-needed files.
    • After spending several hours waiting for these agents to finish copying my pornography to their personal collections, another agent walked over to me and asked me to “sit down” (I had been standing the entire 3 hours). When I declined she repeated the “request” in a threatening tone, and then informed me that they had discovered “pre-teen pornography” on my laptop and that I should co-operate. My response, of course, was that if this was true, I was about to be arrested, and the last thing any lawyer would advise me to do in such a circumstance is “co-operate”.
    Shortly afterwards, I was directed to immigration, not knowing that after a further interrogation by this function, I would be escorted to the street exit without the opportunity to confront the employees who had spent the previous hours harassing me or even to get their names. Hence, I am unable to provide these details, but hopefully this sort of offensive, unprofessionalism is an exception amongst your staff and therefore the perpetrators should be relatively easy to identify.
    Finally, after spending some weeks in the U.S.A., I re-entered Canada at the Stanstead border crossing in Québec. Here, unlike numerous previous visits, I was again subjected to an extensive search. Afterwards, the inspector approached me and announced that “traces of heroin and opium” had been found on my passport, and then enquired if I “had any explanation” for this. I briefly considered the bed of poppies I had admired in front of the restaurant I had eaten breakfast at that morning, but as I had no physical contact with these plants I decided this was an unlikely source of problem. My only logical conclusion, therefore was that this agent was lying to me.. He denied it, but I found his denials unconvincing. I also found it unconvincing that the agent insisted my check at this border was entirely random, and had nothing to do with the Toronto incident. It would appreciated if you would train your agents to be more honest with the public they ostensibly serve – the only thing more offensive than being lied to is being lied to in a transparently unconvincing manner.
    I subsequently contacted and consulted with a Canadian immigration attorney concerning these experiences. He confirmed my gut suspicion that your agents routinely lie to travellers concerning the detection of narcotics and other issues. He also provided some insights into the unprofessional behaviour of your agents in Toronto. Apparently, the CBSA recently busted a traveller for “having sex with a four-year old” in Cuba. IndoChina is considered a ‘drug-smuggling destination,’ and Yemen is, in the simplistic world-views of your agents, a source of “terrorism”. Therefore, the geniuses you have employed at Pearson apparently believed they had discovered the world’s first-ever drug-smuggling, paedophile terrorist, despite the fact that such a creature is less likely to present itself at a Canadian port of entry than bigfoot or the tooth-fairy. It is entirely unacceptable that you permit agents to single out travellers for harassment on the basis of simplistic, ignorant, one-dimensional stereotypes, i.e., someone gets busted for having sex with a four-year-old in Cuba; ipso facto, the ONLY reason to travel to Cuba is to have sex with four-year-olds. Please.
    Let me conclude by noting that this was probably the 10th time in the last 15 years that I have spent all or part of my annual holiday in Canada. I am an elite-level traveller on both Air Canada and VIA rail, a regular guest at the Four Seasons Toronto and the Hilton Bonaventure in Montréal, and besides the money I spend on travel, a good 25% of my wardrobe was purchased from Canadian boutiques. Had I not spent most of that day being by harassed by these buffoons, I probably would have been shopping in central Toronto. If it is the collective judgement of your government that I am not welcome in Canada, then please inform me directly and in advance, and we won’t waste each others’ time. Otherwise, please advise of whatever corrective action you take in response to my complaint.

    Gregory Smith

    • Gregory:

      Please accept the apology of the Canadian people. For we should have assumed that you, and everybody else that travels frequently and shops at boutque fashion stores, should be handed a free pass through customs clearance. While an average Canadian going shopping for cheap wine and groceries has their car totally ripped apart by CBP in the name of “National Security”, your concern over your collection of pornography and medical records is a very big to us. Give me a break, and get off your damn pedestal.

      I’m sorry, but the arrogance and unprofessionalism you incurred on your 2 trips to Canada is a fraction of the abuse Canadians face on a daily basis by US Customs and Border Protection officers. CBSA has a job to do and is bound by law to do it. If I carried kiddy porn and had actual herion and opium on me, and was caught at a US border crossing, you’d be singing CBP’s praises. The real world is ugly and full of terrible people, all customs officers are hired to try to catch a few of them, and are not mind readers. Remember that next time you write a selfish, petty rant.

    • I get your point Gregory, and even though I notice this post was made in 2013 and in all likelihood won’t ever be seen by you I’ll post my comment anyways for posterity.

      I think customs searches are a little too aggressive myself but my recent trip to Chile SA had far different results. I had a layover in the US and was therefore subjected to Canadian customs, US customs, and Chilean customs.

      The Chilean customs was hilarious. The guy asked me a question in Spanish (which I don’t understand). To indicate this I leaned forward another 6 inches or so and cocked my ear towards him with a quizzical look on my face. He repeated his question so I said “I’m sorry I don’t speak Spanish”. BANG the stamp hit my passport and he waved me through as if saying “you don’t understand me? Whatever, I don’t have time for this and don’t give a shit what you’re bringing in”.

      US customs, on the other hand were highly antagonistic for both direction of travel. They surrounded me with officers wearing flak jackets and highly visible sidearms(probably unbuttoned too but I was too scared to even look) and tasers. They then started bombarding me with questions, not even giving me time to answer and had the gal to ask me “Why do you look so nervous?”. I responded that I must look nervous because
      a) I had been up for well over 24 hours at this point and was running on caffeine alone.
      b) I was surrounded by armored and heavily armed men who were all displaying high levels of aggression towards me specifically.
      c) And finally, no one wants to be searched. When I asked the official if I could go to his locker and vehicle and take a look around to see what I find he went particularly aggressive against me.

      In my checked luggage they scanned and found my geology hammer. I had already told them I was going to Chile in an academic geologist capacity in order to inspect local mines for damage and hazards caused by the recent 2014 8.2M earthquake that had occurred just 2 weeks prior. They kept asking me, “why do you need this?” and I kept telling them “Listen guys, I told you, I’m a geologist. Without my hammer I’m just some jackass who knows a lot about rocks but can’t test a god damn thing” (Keep in mind as well, this is only a couple months after american airlines changed their policy to allow for single-sided, non-locking, non-contoured, less than 4 inch blades to be carried by passengers and I can’t figure out for the life of me how a hammer is worse than that). Now, again, this was in my CHECKED luggage, not carry-on. After debating with my own private SWAT team for about half an hour I requested a senior officer come over and verify that this was indeed a problem. The guy arrived, took a look at the scanned image. Turned to his customs officials and said “Guy’s…. This is a geological tool required by geologists and perfectly acceptable in checked luggage. Hell, its acceptable in carry-on if he can explain why he wants it with him. This gentleman is a scientist, not a threat, hell he isn’t even staying in the US, he’s going to Chile.’ He then turned to me and said “I’m very sorry sir, you can go on through”.

      Now for Canadian customs. I arrived at the counter and the lady asked (while beaming a huge friendly smile at me) why I was smiling from ear to ear. I told her it was because I was finally back in Canada, and had just undergone a ridiculous ordeal with US customs. She asked how many cigarettes I had brought back with me and I responded within a second “196”. She said, “Wow, that’s a pretty exact number” as she looked at me questioningly. I responded jubilantly that I had brought a single carton back with me but Atlanta airport still allows smoking on the secure side of the airport and so I had opened a pack and smoked 4 cigarettes there during my layover. I also mentioned that “Maybe CYOW (Macdonald-Cartier International Airport) could learn a thing or 2 from our far southern neighbours” (Honestly guys, if you’re a smoker you know what I’m talking about but if you’re not let me paint out the picture. We develop a heavy chemical dependence on nicotine, which is legal in our countries. Most smokers have a cigarette about every hour or so from my experience. We are then denied that chemical need we have developed for, in my case, 27 hours. You want less irate passengers on your airlines? Then re-open the smoking rooms you have all closed in the last 2 years.). Anyways, we both laughed and BANG she stamped my passport. As I walked out of the terminal I heard some commotion behind me so I turned around and the official I had been dealing with had opened up her secure door and was jogging towards me. When she noticed I was looking at her she said “I forgot to mention to you, Tim Horton’s is on the right as you leave the secure area”. Hahaha, Man I love Canada and Canadians.:)

      Now to my overall point, Some customs are tougher than others as a general rule. Your US customs is typically seen as the toughest in the world. This is not the cases if you are a citizen, just like my Canadian customs interrogation was basically just to give me directions to Tim Horton’s. This being said, I assume customs officials have similar entrance requirements as police do, and as we all know, most cops don’t know a god damn thing, the law included. But take it to a senior officer, who controls the masses and does indeed know, and the problem is solved very quickly.