The topic of digital privacy is never out the headlines for long, a sign of how important the issue is to millions of people who use online services. So the story of Alain Philippon, a 38-year-old man from Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, Quebec, is particularly notable.
Philippon has been charged with “obstructing border officials” after refusing to disclose his BlackBerry password to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officials when reentering the country after a trip to the Dominican Republic, according to CBC News.
Philippon is currently on bail awaiting a court date on May 12, but could face a year behind bars and a $25,000 (CAD) fine if things progress and he’s found guilty. His phone has also been seized.
In the U.S., travelers have been required to allow border agents to search phones and laptops for a while, as is the case in other countries, including the U.K. But the issue of making it a legal requirement for people to actively reveal passwords or encryption keys has been a topic of much debate, particularly in the U.S.
For example, the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution essentially means an individual should be protected from having to incriminate themselves — and revealing a password or encryption key could be construed as “incriminating” oneself. This has been tested, though, in a number of court cases, and individuals have sometimes been required to make the contents of their laptops easily accessible to authorities by decrypting their machines.
Regarding the case of Alain Philippon, this will prove an interesting test of Canada’s existing legislation, which does allow customs officers to inspect travelers’ belongings when entering the country. However, the specific issue of whether a traveler is actually obliged to reveal their password on request has yet to be put through the wringer in court.
Elsewhere, New Zealand authorities are currently seeking powers that would require travelers to disclose passwords when entering the country, with sentences of up to three months in jail for refusing to do so.
With more and more people’s lives existing in the digital worlds of phones, tablets, and laptops, it’s likely the laws of the lands will be tested in more courts around the world.