A friend of mine visited this weekend from the US, and bought some Hungarian salami. It was confiscated at the border upon his return. They couldn’t fine him, because he wasn’t hiding anything, but two nice, yummy (not to mention pricey) sticks of world class salami are now in the garbage somewhere, probably marked with biohazard stickers.
He was given extra scrutiny because last year, when he brought back some salami from Hungary, it, too, was confiscated. After all, Protecting the Homeland cannot be accomplished without preventing Americans from eating foreign meats on home soil. (Curiously, before Hungary joined the EU in 2004, the same salami was widely available in the US but not in Canada. It is the same salami, made using the same hundred-year-old recipe.)
My friend’s misfortune reminded me of one of my encounters with Canada’s fearless protectors of the border many years ago: I drove to Ogdensburg to pick up a parcel (value: approximately 20 dollars) but on the way back, I also visited a Radio Shack where I found some high capacity NiCd batteries (value: approximately 20 dollars). At the border, it didn’t even occur to me to mention the batteries, I did mention that I went to pick up a package. They decided to search my car. They found the batteries. They kept me at the border post for a whole hour, while they did the paperwork necessary in order for me to pay about 5 dollars in sales tax on the imported items. They also warned me that my name will be on some list for a year or more, and that I should anticipate increased scrutiny in the future. Apart from the fact that this experience was both annoying and intimidating, I was also wondering: is this really the best use of taxpayer money?
Then there’s the Sunday last year when I was driving to the US to attend a conference, only to be drilled by a US border agent extensively about why I am going and who’s paying me. I kept telling him that the only paying that’s being done is payment of a hefty conference fee by me, and eventually, managed to convince him to look up the conference Web pages (on a NASA Web site, no less) that, fortunately, contained a list of all attendees. Thus I was able to enter the great United States of America without being further accused of trying to steal a job from an illegal Mexican immigrant.
Or here’s another experience: I was flying back from Europe, and at Ottawa airport, I was asked if I had a laptop. Yes, I answered. I was asked if I use it for personal purposes. Yes, I answered. So I was directed to the examination room. Ahead of me, a person had two laptops, a Mac and a PC, and Canada Customs’ well trained experts had real trouble examining the Mac. For this reason, they kept me waiting. And waiting. Meanwhile, they were going through the family photos of my fellow passenger. The time I spent waiting kept me thinking. I decided that under no circumstances will I give these goons my passwords, or give them control of my machine. I would tell them that the machine’s data are encrypted (they are) and that they are free to confiscate the computer, which would only cost me some money and some inconvenience, as I’d have to set up a new laptop with all the software I use. But I did not escape from a one-party dictatorship only to give up basic, fundamental rights to privacy just because these goons look at me, in my mid forties, and conclude that I must be dumb enough to traffic in kiddie porn, carrying it on a physical laptop across the border. Fortunately, I did not have to test my resolve: to their credit, they first apologized to me a couple of times because of the extra wait, and eventually (after some 20 minutes or more), they let me go without inspecting the laptop. But, my policy stands… indeed, I am ready to follow one of security expert Bruce Schneier’s recommendations and encrypt the laptop prior to crossing a border using a one-time, unrecoverable password that I first communicate to a third party in a safe third country. That way, I could tell them truthfully that nobody, neither they nor I, can recover the contents of the laptop for inspection.
Anyhow, here is my question, to the citizens of the US and Canada. Clearly, these people do not serve our collective interests. Even when they (rather rarely) catch the occasional kiddie porn or drug trafficker, the price we pay, I submit, is way too high. In any case, it seems that most of the time they’re just harassing law-abiding citizens for the fun of it, because they can. Supposedly, our great countries are true democracies. So… exactly why do we keep these bullies, these goons, in lawful employment, costing taxpayers billions of dollars every year, why don’t we kick them in the butt so hard that they wouldn’t even be able to sit for weeks, and get rid of this stupid, anachronistic border control system?
Meanwhile, in Europe, you can land at the airport in Lisbon, Portugal, rent a car, and drive all the way to Vilnius, Lithuania, without ever being stopped for a customs inspection. The example set by Europe is not always something we should follow, but perhaps in this case, we should make an exception and get rid of this ridiculousness. And the goons.