Bag searches at borders reveal more than ornamental nipple clamps

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Bag searches at the border are becoming a privacy issue. Simon Davies explains why we need to put our foot down on zealous security officials. 

The online world is replete with embarrassing tales of air travellers who have suffered the indignity of having the intimate contents of their luggage aired in public by zealous security officials. I’ve seen more and more of these accounts lately, often involving the waving around of everything from kinky underwear to jumbo condom packets.

I can empathise, though on this occasion I’d like to focus on the rarely discussed aspect of international rail travel.

Some time ago, I travelled by train from Hamburg to Copenhagen. It’s normally a peaceful journey, stopping along the way to board the ferry between the towns of Puttgarden (on the German side) and Rodby (on the Denmark side).

It turned out that “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion” are not legal terms in the vocabulary of most officials.

On this occasion the trip was not so convivial. Thanks to various reactionary government edicts, border controls throughout this European region – and almost everywhere else – have been ramped up (though there is, as some reports describe it, a glimmer of hope that the EU borders are being relaxed in places).

Three border officials approached me en-masse and politely requested to search my bags. Well, they asked as politely as border officials are pathologically able to ask.

As seasoned travellers will know, I use the word “requested” with a tinge of irony. Refusing search requests at a border would probably result in me being escorted to the next train back to Germany. Cancellation of your privacy and fourth amendment rights is not confined to airports.

It turned out that “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion” are not legal terms in the vocabulary of most officials. I reluctantly consented, under protest.

I’ll hand them something; they were meticulous. Meticulous to the point of obsession. In hindsight, when they asked if I had any drugs on me I shouldn’t have responded “No, but I know a guy who does if you really want some”. You can’t get away with joviality at the border, even on a train.

The search began in earnest and I started to worry whether I might have something “of interest”, or even slightly humiliating. After a few weeks of travel you collect a lot of random stuff. You know, some prankster friend hilariously gives you a pair or ornamental nipple clamps after a long night on the booze. That sort of thing. I got to thinking of that iconic search scene in Austin Powers. The one with the Swedish penis enlarger pump.

Sydney Airport Media demonstration of new carry on baggage restrictons and security check in measures for International passengers. A security officer examins a womans carry on containers. All containers must now be 100 millilitres or less and sealed in a clear plastic bag. ( airport staff posing as passengers) SMH NEWS PIC BY LEE BESFORD. Thursday 29th March 2007.

On a more serious note, did I pack those conference papers on terrorist networking? Or that academic report on radicalism? Shades of the McArthyism era sprang to mind.

They started by holding aloft a roll of toilet paper from my backpack.

OK, let me be clear here. There are some items that the long-haul traveller packs as a matter of necessity. Toilet paper is one such item.

I polled a number of colleagues on this point, and our list of essentials and emergency items eerily converged. We all travel for long periods and have independently gained a common understanding of such matters. For the record, here is the list:

Passport, umbrella, grocery bags, power adapter, ethernet cable, toilet roll and basic toiletries, combined bottle opener and cork screw, pen and paper, asprin, water bottle, ingredients for making tea or coffee, plasters, spare shoe laces, reading material, rubber bands, snacks, cash, dental floss and ear plugs.

Beyond that list, almost everything is suspect – but also toilet roll, apparently.

Why do you carry this?”enquired one of the sanitary investigation officials in a voice that may or may not have been loud enough to be overheard in Romania..

did I pack those conference papers on terrorist networking? Or that academic report on radicalism? Shades of the McArthyism era sprang to mind.

There really is no easy answer to that line of questioning, so I resorted to shrugging my shoulders rather than doing a mime act on my behind. This did provide some amusement to fellow travellers, some of whom had abandoned their crossword puzzles and MP3 players to observe the scene.

Another official found a small hand carved wooden duck which was given to me as a gift by a conference in Norway. I had completely forgotten about that duck.

It was a beautiful duck, doubtless carved by rustic artists from an ancient Spruce tree on the shores of a remote exotic fjord. Someone had gone to the trouble of daubing it with art-nouveau yellow and blue circles, just like ducks aren’t.

The officials were intrigued. What is this? One asked, slowly turning it around like an antiques expert. Fellow passengers also seemed curious to know. After all, they had become part of this show.

They prodded that duck. They held it to the light, shook it, tapped it and meddled with its bits. “Are there drugs in here?”

I explained that it was just a duck. I then went on to show them the relevant conference programme and my talk on jurisdictional conflicts arising from the General Data Protection Regulation. You would think that investigatory people would have an opinion on that subject, but apparently not. They don’t make border officials like they used to.

After the duck controversy had been resolved, they discovered a bag of electrical peripherals – or “wiring”, as they described it. That is, three mobile phone chargers, the essential ethernet cable, a micro USB cable, remote drive, batteries and sundry other items necessary for the digitally connected traveller.

Thankfully there was enough sense among the posse to move on from an interrogation about explosives equipment.

This search went on for a further few minutes until the bags were exhausted of opportunity. What slightly annoyed me was that they didn’t even find the bag of sugar that I carry with me. They did, however, enjoy going through my documents and correspondence and loudly enquiring about particular aspects, such as a trip to Moscow and personal correspondence with a former UK Home Secretary. There is no requirement to log such observations.

The point of this diatribe is that border people need to learn some respect for people’s dignity and privacy. Codes of conduct that currently exist for pat-downs should be extended to bag searches to provide some assurance of personal rights. This applies in particular to searches on trains and buses, where the proximity of other travellers is intimate and close.

The UK government, as an example, employs a standard that requires bags to be checked in front of the traveller, but offers no guidance on how those items are checked. Nor does it offer advice on how officials should avoid humiliating searches. The codes of Canada and Australia are similarly vacant.

Yes, I understand that in the big scheme of things in privacy – or even in border privacy – this aspect might seem trivial, but it is often those more arcane elements of privacy that end up setting a broader standard for us all.