Canadian man faces fines and jail time for refusal to unlock BlackBerry at airport

Here's a little something that hit close to home for me personally. Alain Philippon, 38, of Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, Quebec who arrived at Halifax's Stanfield International Airport from Puerto Plata has been charged under section 153.1 (b) of the Customs Act for hindering or preventing border officers from performing their role under the act based on his refusal to provide his BlackBerry password to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers upon his arrival.

Although Philippon has been let out on bail, he has lost access to his now seized phone and has to appear in court on May 12th to face charges where the minimum fine for the offence is $1,000, with a maximum fine of $25,000 and the possibility of a year in jail. Canada Border Services Agency declined to comment on why Philippon was chosen for his additional screening of his smartphone but in an email to CBC, a border services spokesperson noted:

"Officers are trained in examination, investigative and questioning techniques. To divulge our approach may render our techniques ineffective. Officers are trained to look for indicators of deception and use a risk management approach in determining which goods may warrant a closer look."

Philippon has noted he would fight the charges, claiming that he refused to provide the password because his smartphone data is "personal." Rob Currie, director of the Law and Technology Institute at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax highlighted the fact that border officials have broad authority to search travellers and their belongings but the issue of whether a traveller must reveal a password to an electronic device at the border hasn't been tested by the courts.

"This is a question that has not been litigated in Canada, whether they can actually demand you to hand over your password to allow them to unlock the device," he said. "[It's] one thing for them to inspect it, another thing for them to compel you to help them." "Under the Customs Act, customs officers are allowed to inspect things that you have, that you're bringing into the country," he told CBC News."The term used in the act is 'goods,' but that certainly extends to your cellphone, to your tablet, to your computer, pretty much anything you have."

Living in Halifax, I've traveled through the Halifax Stanfield International Airport several times and have been subject to the same sort of search so I'll be watching this one closely to see the results myself. It is potentially a precedent-setting​ case for what Canada Border Services Agency can ask of an individual. Have you ever been asked to reveal the password for any of your devices at customs? If so, let us know in the comments.