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U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin says there are more people crossing into the U.S. from Canada that are suspected of alliances with terrorist organizations than there are from Mexico. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI/REUTERS)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin says there are more people crossing into the U.S. from Canada that are suspected of alliances with terrorist organizations than there are from Mexico. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI/REUTERS)

Laptops fair game for border searches Add to ...

The arrest of a Catholic bishop on child-pornography charges highlights the power of border agents to see not just your passport, but the contents of your laptop computer.

Between them, the Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP enforce dozens of statutes - the border agency at various ports and crossings, the Mounties between ports of entry.

The Customs Act gives Canada's border officers authority to examine people's personal baggage and goods upon arrival to, and departure from, Canada, including scrutiny of electronic devices.

"Officers are trained to search electronic media for child pornography, obscene material and hate propaganda," said Patrizia Giolti of the border services agency.

"They receive training to familiarize themselves with computers and other devices and how to quickly identify potential files."

In cases where an officer determines through "visual inspection" that an image is child pornography, the material is seized.

"Law enforcement would then be contacted for the purposes of laying charges under the Criminal Code."

The border agency is responsible for ensuring travellers comply with immigration and customs laws. It draws on information compiled in databases to assess people, and analyzes information from airlines, among other sources, to zero in on possible security threats.

Generally, travellers are either waived through after initial questioning by a border officer or held back for secondary inspection.

Mr. Giolti said officers rely on "a whole slew of indicators," including what a person says and how they act, in deciding whether someone undergoes secondary examination.

"The whole package, basically, will help us determine whether or not further examination is deemed necessary.

"There has to be something there for us to conduct further examination.

"It's a combination of all the factors present before us, and each case is different."

Being flagged for further examination doesn't mean you've done anything wrong, she said.

"You may display the exact same indicators that I am, and one of us may be referred for secondary, the other one may not."

Border officers have powers of arrest, detention and search and seizure, as well as the authority to take breath and blood samples, issue arrest warrants and operate detention facilities for immigrants.

But unlike the RCMP, the border agency has no independent watchdog to investigate public complaints.

Paul Kennedy, chairman of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, recently said it makes no sense that he lacks a counterpart to oversee the border agency, since its officers can arrest people and carry guns - just like the Mounties.

Mr. Giolti said any time any time an individual feels an officer's behaviour is inappropriate, they may ask to speak with a supervisor and later submit a written letter of complaint.

The border agency reviews, examines and responds to all of the complaints and makes appropriate changes where required, she added.

The agency has been criticized for not clearly flagging the complaints process on its website and being less than responsive when troubles arise.

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