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Disabled woman denied entry to U.S. after agent cites private medical details (thestar.com)
143 points by slantyyz on Nov 28, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 85 comments

The US border agents have many means of acquiring information.

I have a relative who lives in a Canadian border town.

She was crossing the border with a friend the other day (as they and other locals do weekly if not daily). Her friend happened to make a comment about the border agent's sunglasses when they were a few cars from the gate with their windows closed. There was nobody outside of the car that could have possibly heard them, or so they thought.

When they approached the gate, the first thing the agent said to them was "what dont you like about my sunglasses?"

They ended up getting through, but it just goes to show you the type of game they're playing over there.

I'm assuming they had either lip readers assigned to multiple hidden cameras or directional antennaes manned by many workers inside.

I have personally been lied to numerous times by border agents. Perhaps they just acccused her of being mentally ill because she was going on the march of dimes tour and she got offended, who knows?

Or he could have pointed at his eyes making a sunglass shape and the agent happened to be glancing over the cars really quick. I don't know, this is too conspiratorial for me and it should not diverge from the real issue at hand.

How is the possibility of using listening devices near the border "conspiratorial"? There are many ways to accomplish this using publicly available technology. Using the C word to dismiss a conversation prevents us from having a legitimate discussion about whether something is appropriate.

Just considering the possibility isn't too conspiracy theory-ish, but considering it based solely on a single anecdote that could have alternate reasonable explanations (for example, a guard actually was near the car and they just didn't notice) is a little ridiculous, especially when there clearly is a serious issue to be discussed here.

Listening devices in people's cars is what I think is taking it too far. I am from from calling anything conspiratorial.

They wouldn't need to be in people's cars. You could just bounce a laser off the car windshield to hear what's going on inside.

This strikes me as a great tactic, as I can imagine people that are preparing to lie to the authorities may be corroborating their story as they approach the gate.

What surprises me is that the border patrol officer would tip this hand over such a minor thing.

Fair enough. I was not really aware those technologies are/might be used this intrusively.

Would that work on a car, considering it's vibrating from the engine running?

Ok that's pretty damn cool, I didn't know that was possible. But the car vibrations might still be too much noise, and I don't know if it's possible to automatically remove the noise like that.

I didn't want to turn that comment into a novel, but the reason they tell that story is because it's generally accepted as fact (among many other local border town residents) that the USA has means of listening to you speak in your car before you even approach the gate.

When did that become a reality? It certainly wasn't the case just 5 years ago.

I have absolutely no idea. That's just what my relatives tell me.

Well, the Canadian border agents were running an eavesdropping program until it became public and they supposedly stopped doing it. I think that if the canadians were doing they were only following in the footsteps of the US side.


Border agent has skills. I know there's no way I could manage to question the car I'm supposed to be questioning while simultaneously listening in on the conversations of every other car.

Why would you? Capture the audio, convert to text, trigger on words like "border agent", "customs", "guard", "bomb", "drugs", etc. and then have someone in the basement reviewing the conversations that trigger the alert and passing the important bits up to the guy in the booth.

"they don't like your sunglasses" is one of the important triggers?

No, but talking about the border guards could well be. Then Jim downstairs listens to the clip, gets a laugh, and ims his buddy upstairs "hey Ted, red car says your sunglasses are ugly lol".

Has anybody seen the first five minutes of Super Troopers? The kids in the car no doubt felt the cops had mind reading powers.

"you know how fast you were going?" "65?" "63." [kid freaks out]

"you feeling ok?" "yes sir" "did you say 'yes sir' or yeah sure'?" [kid freaks out]

I imagine that's how most of these stories go in real life. Cop's a bit of a jerk, victim freaks out and imagines all sorts of terrifying threats. And of course the story always gets better in the telling.

I'm pretty sure that's what happened in a nut-shell.

I have a relative who lives in a Canadian border town

She might have simply lied to you about the whole incident.

She could have, sure. But she doesn't have a history of doing that. I have known her for almost 30 years.

I don't get it. How?

Maybe laser microphones aimed at the windscreens. Lots of ways.

Standard parabolic mic might be good enough.

If the car motor is on while on the waiting line a laser microphone would probably just register a huge amount of noise

At least at the Washington border, there are large signs telling you to turn off your engine while in line. Presumably this is for environmental reasons, but there maybe additional benefits.

From what I understand about speakers, a vibrating piece of glass would be an amazing one. Especially for sophisticated equipment.

I bet you could remove it fairly easily. Use another laser to count the revs or something. Your brain does most of the work in removing noise from speech.

I don't think it's that straightforward, a few feet of difference in source position amounts to a phase shift of significant percentage of a wavelength at audio frequencies. You can't just flip phase and sum. It was also my understanding that laser microphones require very precise alignment, and getting one lined up normal to a convex, moving windshield is at least a tiny bit more than "trivial"

Or just use two microphones—one aimed at the windshield and one at the bonnet—and subtract one from the other.

Then it turns into a significantly more complex problem. The thing with removing noise from speech is that the amount of vibration from the glass due to speech is negligible compared to the vibration due to the motor

The same privacy leak story came up in Sept 2011 [1] when Wikileaks exposed the practice and I guess nothing has been done since then. And yet people still hold to the flawed argument that "if you have nothing to hide..."

Ironically (and sadly) TFA says that the US cannot talk about the issue due to privacy laws. Ha! That takes balls to say.

[1] http://www.cbc.ca/m/touch/canada/story/1.1034903

Some of the other stories on the topic seem to indicate the most likely indicator here - calls to 911 are automatically matters involving "law enforcement", and are shared between countries.

It's actually something I hadn't considered before - if you call 911 for an ambulance, that info goes in to police records/databases related to your name even if not about an arrest.

The lesson here isn't about secret sharing - it's that if you (or someone you care about) has an issue that may be used against you later, do everything in your power to go to the hospital yourself rather than calling 911.

It depresses me to think I just wrote that.

Not all that long ago newspapers published all hospital admissions and discharges.


What would that information possibly be useful for?

I don't know if newspapers were publishing it, but this story is not very comforting:


I can imagine an usecase - if your relative or friend is unexplainably not found at home or office, so is effectively 'disappeared' from you - then in a pre-internet era you might not want to search all the hospitals in new york to check if (s)he's there.

What worries me is that those with a mental illness will stop presenting themselves for care because they will be concerned that it will be used against them. This is what happened here, after all!

And this illness if untreated might lead to people doing weird things on plains, which they are trying to prevent! So they are creating potential terrorists... keep up the good work ?

to make sure I am hearing you right, you think this agent was doing the right rhing and realistically had good reason think this woman was a risk and should be denied entry?

No, the parent comment is saying that this policy will have the unintended consequence of making passenger behavior more unpredictable by discouraging the mentally ill from seeking treatment.

ok. agreed...glad I asked first :)

From the comments on thestar.com...

Border agents may have access to confidential medical records of Canadians which they are using to screen visitors, but it certainly wasn't necessary in this case; a quick Google search turns up that she wrote a book about it, published under her own name: http://ellenrichardson.ca/bio/index.html

Whether we should be denying entry based on this criteria is certainly debatable, but the medical details in question in this case appear to have been made public by Ellen Richardson herself.

There may be a discrepancy with the dates, as the book and BIO obviously reference the initial incident from 2001 but I didn't see anything pre-dating this news about 2012 in 5 minutes of searching. At this point though, there are already grounds for denying entry, and 2001 vs 2012 becomes he-said-she-said.

> U.S. Customs and Border Protection media spokeswoman Jenny Burke said that due to privacy laws, “the department is prohibited from discussing specific cases.’’

I imagine she had a massive grin on her face as she said that.

Kakfa, meet Orwell.

Reading this story, my initial thought is - is there more to it? If indeed the US Border Agency does this, then why have we not heard more stories about this? And if this is the first case, then the future is very very scary.

There have been more stories: http://www.cbc.ca/m/touch/canada/story/1.1034903

The agent gave her a signed document which stated that “system checks’’ had found she “had a medical episode in June 2012’’ and that because of the “mental illness episode’’ she would need a medical evaluation before being accepted.

If ever there was a story where "see attached" was appropriate, this is it.

Maybe we need a crowd-funded effort to re-write novels like 1984 to make them more believable, and by that I mean far more terrifying.

>Kakfa, meet Orwell.

Indeed. I would call Orwell prescient, but he was just extrapolating from his own personal experience in Spain.

That's a very sad story.

Unfortunately, many people with a history of mild to moderate mental illness will have to lie about it to get holiday medical insurance. A regular policy is affordable. A policy with a disclosed history of mild to moderate mental illness is bafflingly expensive.

That's one reason I see most of the campaigns about how people should seek treatment for mental illness as problematic, or at least oversimplified. A good number of people absolutely should not seek treatment, because they will end up in a worse situation than they were previously, as a result of having a "black mark" applied to their record. Whether the net benefit is positive is extremely dependent on many variables.

I would support reform that would reduce the downsides of seeking diagnosis/treatment. But absent such reform, it is irresponsible to counsel people to seek treatment without carefully weighing the upside and downside.

That's a very harmful way of looking at the situation.

Someone getting treatment means they can stay alive, and have a decent quality of life.

I'll agree that discrimination law is not enforced enough, but the UK and the US (and probably other nations) have laws preventing discrimination against people with mental health problems during recruitment or employment.

I strongly recommend people with a mental health problem to seek treatment.

> it is irresponsible to counsel people to seek treatment without carefully weighing the upside and downside.

But people may lack capacity to judge the situation properly, especially if they don't seek early treatment and become more ill.

It's irresponsible to counsel people to not seek treatment (thus continuing to suffer MH problems) because of the hypothetical risk of problems in future.

> Someone getting treatment means they can stay alive, and have a decent quality of life.

If they would die otherwise or have a terrible quality of life, then yes, it's worth seeking treatment regardless of any stigma. But many people who seek treatment would not die or suffer serious harm otherwise; mental illness is not some kind of 100% death sentence, and it comes in a range of severities. Whether seeking treatment reduces or increases future risk becomes extremely sensitive to the precise condition, and estimates of the likely benefits and... anti-benefits of treatment. And that depends in part on the country and the legal regime.

The UK and US have some anti-discrimination laws. In addition to those, they have laws actively mandating discrimination against people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, in a wide range of legal situations. Therefore it is critical that anyone who is considering applying that label to themselves, in such countries, considers the legal ramifications. Perhaps we'd like to live in a world where "seek professional advice, this is always the right decision and won't be held against you" were true, but in the US/UK, at least, it is not. Those countries choose, deliberately, to hold such diagnoses against people who receive them.

In other countries, like the Nordic countries, I would give the opposite advice. If you are a Norwegian citizen, seeking professional advice is nearly always the correct decision, because the care is good (and free), and the downsides minimal and strongly policed.

But Dan, that's the problem. It appears that here at least, there is a problem whereby U.S. law actively discriminates against those who have had a mental illness. If the law discriminates against you, then it might be sometimes better not to get help.

That's the concern. I have depression, and it's made me pause. I live in Australia - who knows what information the Australian government is sharing with the U.S.?

Here the problem is not with her seeking treatment for her mental illness.

The problem is with someone giving her confidential medical records to the US, and with the US having a sub-optimal entry system for people with MH histories.

I fully respect the decisions the people make about their own lives. But I strongly feel that we don't fight stigma by not confronting the organisations that perpetuate that stigma.

> I have depression, and it's made me pause.

I agree it's scary and weird. I agree there's a bunch of stuff around "when to disclose an illness" during employment.

Hope you're doing good though!!

Why is that baffling?

Sorry, I mean it's not just "more expensive" but "so much more expensive that I am baffled; I cannot understand how they arrive at the cost".

Like how much more are we talking about?

Perhaps vacations and trips are common catalysts for emotional or psychological disturbances which can invoke long, costly treatments?

From the UK, to the rest of Europe, the cost goes from about £10 to several thousand pounds. If you get cover at all.

And that's for countries which are mostly covered by the EU health insurance card (access to state medical care in Europe).

That sounds odd. I've bought emergency medical insurance for UK visitors to Canada several times, as recently as this summer, and there have never been any medical questions whatsoever.

Possibly because psychological disorders can be easily temporarily faked, thus permitting the purchaser to cancel their trip at will?

Maybe. They could include the need for hospitalisation for any cancelled trip refund. In the UK it's pretty hard to get into a hospital even as an informal patient.

There must be some reason though.

Less likely the vacation itself, but the "post vacation letdown" when one returns to everyday life.

There's multiple things going on, beyond the medical privacy thing. If someone comes in and 4 years from now drives in to a grocery store, then it turns out they had 'mental illness' from 10 years ago, heads will roll. Beyond privacy, this seems very much like an overzealous "no tolerance" reading of "mentally ill people can't come in the country" (because, of course we don't have any here already, right?).

But... come on. She is a paraplegic - this is not someone who is a threat to the safety of others. Or... to the extent she's a threat, she's s a threat whether she's on US soil or not (ability to organize violent/terrorism from abroad via the internet).

What heads roll? At most someone at the top will "take responsibility" and ride out the controversy until the public is distracted by the next

Oooh! The Kardashians did something again!

Exactly what seems to be happening.

The fluff takes your mind off the twisting of laws and violations of human rights... If it's not the fluff that does the distracting, it's the threat of some looming enemy like Al Quaeda or Iran or Syria...

I know. Realistically little would happen, but people would make a lot of noise for a while, thinking that something is happening.

This is really troubling.

Maybe the only solution is to do something drastic, like everyone naming their kid the same name, ie. John or Jane Smith. They can call them whatever name they want at home, but for any formal documentation, everyone could use the same name. This might make it extremely hard for governments to share information back and forth like this is all they have a birth date and birthplace to go off of.

If the governments are actually sharing information, then they'll just share your citizenship number, passport info, etc.

This story is only the opening round. Like other stories, there may be a mundane explanation. She may have posted on some website or something. Or have had something referencing her depression in her belongings. I'm glad Canada is investigating, but I'd say it's a bit premature to say that the Canadian government is sharing private medical records, wholesale.

After everything we've seen from Edward Snowden, and the scale to which countries are sharing data about their citizens together without our knowledge, I think it's safe to assume that governments don't give a crap about our privacy, and are sharing everything. Fool me once, etc.

I just love the way government agencies and companies refuse to discuss for privacy issues, when the information is out and the person has given his permission. Seems that is the only situation that they respect the privacy.

Clearly the only "privacy" they respect is their ability to make decisions and gather information without the slightest oversight.

Thats why I avoid flying in the US/stopping there. I often visit Central America and just take the flight which don't go through US territory. I had some incidents with us customs too, those guys are nuts. If they want, they put you in interrogation room for hours or just don't let you pass for shady "reasons". Or literally harass you with questions. Thanks.

Ho hum. Just another day at the office fighting the The War on Dignity.

In it to win it!

> Richardson’s bad luck continued when she tried to get the cost of her trip refunded.

For Canadians, many international flights leave from the US airports close to the border. Normally, it shouldn't be a problem, but you can never be sure they'll let you into the country to catch your flight. Every trip becomes somewhat of a gamble.

At least the checkpoint is in Canada, so you're not stuck in Texas or something. In my limited experience, the agents are nicer in Toronto than agents inside the US.

Way to make this woman even more depressed... WTF!


If she said she was going to buy firearms to bring back to canada, she would have had better chances of crossing, foolish tourist!

Notwithstanding the privacy concerns, this agent is a real jerk. it also is concerning how much leeway they have in blocking people. pretty subjective what can be considered a medical condition that could pose a risk to others or yourself.

Is it unreasonable to think that the Canadian government forwards this information to the US border agency?

She needs a good psychic paper...

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