Monday, January 4, 2010

Canadian border crossing problems—read this before you cross with a laptop!

I’ve entered Canada many times, always with two laptops, and never a problem until December 26th. At the Canadian border crossing (Blaine, Washington), a young Asian woman scowled at me in response to every answer I gave to her questions, especially when I told her I have never been arrested. (Apparently she thought there are only two kinds of travelers, those who admit they’ve been arrested, and those who lie about it.) I was told to park my pickup and enter the building—the dreaded “secondary inspection.” What followed was one the most miserable experiences I’ve had in recent memory.

“Give me your keys,” said an older, heavy-set officer, “and then sit over there.” From where I sat, my pickup was not visible. Eventually I was called back to the counter and the questions began.

“Why do you carry TWO laptops? Why are your keys connected to a Kubotan? How many flash drives do you have with you? Why doesn’t your wife travel with you? Are you going to be around any young children? What’s the name of the man you plan to meet in Ucluelet? Have you ever met him? No? Then how did you know about him? Why do you carry a Bible and some religious magazines, when you also carry two bottles of wine? (I quoted some pro-wine Scriptures at this point, which put an end to that line of questioning.)

In days gone by, I survived two interrogations by Generalissimo Franco’s Secret Police but this session with Canadian Customs and Immigration was even more depressing because I knew they were going to go through hundreds of my supposedly private files.

My Asus PC Eee, my backup Vaio, and the two flash drives require passwords. I was forced to reveal them. Then both the man and the young woman disappeared into a back room with my computers and flash drives and left me sitting out there alone with nothing to read and nothing to look at, for 55 minutes. That was the worst part.

True, I keep client lists, tax returns, confidential letters, and most of my pictures on a secure laptop at home that is never connected to the Internet and never leaves home. Nevertheless, there were hundreds if not thousands of files on those laptops and flash drives. Was this going to ruin all the work I’ve put into keeping my private affairs private? My mouth went painfully dry.

Finally, the man reappeared. He handed me the computers and flash drives and allowed me to leave. No “Sorry to bother you,” much less “Welcome to Canada.” But had they copied both hard drives? Would the U.S. Customs and Immigration be notified to check me out when I returned? I carried $4,000 in cash, stuffed inside a glove in the tool compartment below the rear seats. They hadn’t mentioned the money. Had they not found it, or had they taken it? If so, what recourse would I possibly have? I feared I was about to kiss four big ones goodbye.

I had planned to work on some new chapters of a book tentatively titled “How to Hide Your Identity and Protect Your Privacy (International edition)” but what if my hard drive was going to be copied again at the U.S. border? So far, the Canadians at the border crossing had failed to connect me to my Web site or my HTBI book (which I did NOT have with me). Result: I did no writing whatsoever and cut my trip short.

If you plan a Canadian border crossing with a laptop, keep this information in mind:

1. Carry only a “clean” notebook or laptop with you.
2. Answer every question truthfully.
3. Be prepared to give up all your passwords.

Or … leave your computer at home.

Or … cancel your trip.

A surprise was waiting for me when I returned to the ‘Promised Land’ but I’ll leave that information for next week’s blog. Stay tuned for Part II of Canadian Border Crossing problems!


  1. Whoa, they ought to be ashamed for their public relations mis-steps.

    On one hand, stopping an 80+ year-old-white-dude driving alone to Canada in a pickup truck sounds absolutely ridiculous. On the other hand, the Asian chick might have been racist. (Did she have a Canadian accent?) More likely though, they stopped you to even out their quota of people who don't fit the reasonable, and accurate, profile of a dangerous person - so they can't be accused of profiling. Bureaucrats, politically correct bureaucrats, (sigh).

    The photos on the back of your books don't mark you as a smuggler or Jihadist....

  2. There are many different ways that you could have carried information across without having to worry about prying eyes. First you could always use a laptop that uses a dual boot partition one with windows XP and one with linux. Then temporarily disable the boot loader so the computer always starts up to your windows XP partition. The linux partition with all your files will be nicely hidden unless they install a run a partition manager on your computer. Another way is to have USB drives that are actually normal every day objects like a pen, stuffed animal, or other inanimate object. one final thing would be to have a laptop with 2 hard drives, then disable the second hard drive using the jumpers while crossing then just reenable it. usb hard drives are great too because you can always create partitions that can be completely invisible until reactivated. Then just carry a bunch of pictures random documents and other freely downloadable files on there. Also if you were going to be there for an extended stay, why not mail yourself the flash drive? After thinking about the above partitioning topics, i believe that none of them would matter if they just pulled out your hard drive and did a full hard drive copy, which is probably what they did to you. That way they can send it off to more experienced people to search through the drive.

  3. I was surprised when reading your book that you didn't mention how important cryptography and stenography are for computer privacy. Imagine if you lost that laptop on the bus, even. I know they're techie topics, but tools like TrueCrypt fairly easily offer the ability to encrypt files and plausibly deny that there's anything there to find. US Customs has been pretty awful about laptops for the last 8 years, I'd never cross a US border without encryption.

  4. What about using an offsite storage/backup service like the very highly advertised carbonite service? This way you can access the files anywhere and not have to carry them with you. Of course you have to trust that carbonite will keep your files private.

  5. How about someone letting us know what the reaction would have been or is, if the Canadians would find that you have U.S. outstanding vehicle infractions, tickets not paid? Do they or can they even see that information when you cross into Canada? I had heard that people were being denied entry in those cases? Anyone know?
    Thanks a bunch.

  6. Simple solution; don't travel to countries that have asinine security.

    I know many people will feel this is an affront to their right to travel, but until the traveling public says enough, and protests by refusing to be treated as cattle, this will continue.

    There have been several occasions where I have simply refused to travel to the US because of the hassle of the border, never mind the degrading treatment dished out at the airports. Clients south of the border are angry when I tell them why I refuse to enter their country. The really 'patriotic' ones usually go into a rant about how the 'terrorist' have to be stopped. Rarely do they understand the brilliant statement;

    "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."


  7. George Wanker BushAugust 11, 2010 at 11:32 AM

    Americans are allowed to carry guns. But don't bother to bring them with you to Canada. Otherwise they will be confiscated and you could face hefty fines or jail time.

  8. Using a VPN to a private server located in a secure location, with encrypted files that you have the password memorized for makes this a non-event.

    Carry your laptop that is "software only," (No private files)

    CLEAN IT UP BEFORE YOU GO. History, document history, etc.

    Access your files through the VPN after crossing, and you are good to go. Make sure to leave all your work ON your server, so as to eliminate any chance of opening up private information to others while in a compromised position, and you are good to go.

    Smile, hand them the laptop, and make sure it has no password on it when you cross.


  9. I read about your visit to Canada on 26th December, I think that must have been so embarrassing visit for you. I am also keeping your tips in my mind while entering the Canadian border.

  10. I have heard this a lot about Canada. It is a very difficult country to get into. Martha Stewart cannot even go there. the weather is awful and the prices are too high. Forget Canada and spend your money elsewhere.


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