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Globe editorial: At the border, it’s security theatre of the absurd

It is known as "security theatre," a suite of frequently invasive measures that provide the appearance of bolstering the safety of travellers, while in fact accomplishing very little.

A lavish new production may be about to open in the United States, staged by the creators of such hits as "Take Your Shoes Off At The Airport" and "Wand the Old Lady In the Wheelchair."

The Trump administration is reported to be contemplating rules to force visitors arriving at the border from a raft of countries – possibly including even European allies such as France and Germany – to hand over their social media passwords and provide access to the contacts on their phones.

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That would represent a shocking infringement of privacy and liberty, running counter to everything free societies are built upon.

Would that the situation was much better on this side of the border. Though Canadian officials say they don't arrest travellers who refuse to provide their phone passwords or submit them to warrantless searches, it is probably in their power under Canadian law to do so. It's a murky legal area the federal government shows little inclination to illuminate.

Canadian border agents may also be able to confiscate devices, and deny entry to visitors for refusing access. Canada's border agency operates under interim search guidelines that aren't readily available to the public; the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner's website describes the search standard as "evidence of contraventions may be found on the digital device or media."

Yes, there should be a reduced expectation of privacy at border crossings, but that's awfully broad.

By all means, dig into the smartphone of a suspected terrorist or someone believed to be involved in smuggling. But we need a taller evidentiary hurdle than "may be found." Otherwise, every border crossing by a tourist invites a government fishing expedition.

Terrorism, and all crime, present risks. But those should be dealt with thoughtfully and proportionately.

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Instead what's on offer, with the likelihood of more to come, is security theatre. It's getting to the point where border agencies and airport security should consider applying for funding from the Canada Council, or America's National Endowment for the Arts.

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