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Recent court cases have drawn attention to customs officers searching laptops at airports. While some might claim these searches invade privacy, proponents of them assert they have been effective.
Perhaps the highest profile case recently occurred in Canada. Ronald William White, a 25-year-old missionary from Virginia, received a 20-month sentence for importing nearly 5,000 images of child pornography into Canada. White admitted some of the images were taken in homes of families he had been to in 11 countries over the last five years, according to an Oct. 2 Winnipeg Free Press article.
The case brought to the attention of the national media the fact that laptop searches do occur.
"Officers are trained to search electronic media for child pornography, obscene material and hate propaganda," said Patrizia Giolti of the Canada Border Services Agency, in the Free Press article. "They receive training to familiarize themselves with computers and other devices and how to quickly identify potential files."
The White case, and others, has prompted the question of whose laptops are selected to be searched. In New Zealand, a man of Middle Eastern descent but now a citizen of that country had his laptop seized for a search while returning from Melbourne. Abraham Alawi, 26, said this is not the first time this has happened and said an official told him he was being stopped due to his last name. Alawi said he plans to file a complaint with the Customs and the Privacy Commissioner and meet with a human rights lawyer, according to a Sept. 28 Stuff.co.nz website article.
In Canada, Giolti said officers use "a whole slew of indicators" to decide whether a more thorough examination of an object or person is needed. However, the chairman of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP questions why there is no counterpart to his organization to oversee customs officers. Paul Kennedy pointed out that both agencies can make arrests and carry firearms.
According to an Oct. 1 San Jose Mercury News article, in a case where child pornography was found on a San Jose resident's laptop at the San Francisco airport, it is not clear whether the search was random or triggered by a tip. David Adler, 49, who was returning from the Philippines and London in 2005, was sentenced to 200 hours of community service, must register as a sex offender for life and cannot participate in any organized activity involving minors.
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