Is the Department of Homeland Security Google searching the names of travelers before they enter the United States? That’s the question being asked after a Canadian woman was turned away by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent as a result of being hospitalized for a mental illness last year.
50-year-old Ellen Richardson was due to fly to New York City where she would leave for a ten day cruise, but despite having entered the United States on several occasions since 2001, she was told by a DHS official at Toronto’s Pearson Airport that she would be refused entry, “because I had a hospitalization in the summer of 2012 for clinical depression.”
Richardson was then handed a signed document which explained that “system checks” had found she “had a medical episode in June 2012” and that because of this “mental illness episode” she would be required to undergo medical evaluation by DHS-approved doctors before being accepted.
“How did DHS know this about Richardson?” asks Network World. “An online search leads to Richardson’s book that documented how she became paralyzed and about her bouts of depression. So are CBP agents “Googling” people, or checking social media posts to vet visas?”
Canadian officials MPP France Gelinas and MP Mike Sullivan responded by sending letters to provincial and federal privacy commissioners in an attempt to find out how and why Richardson’s private medical information was being shared with U.S. authorities.
“This is scary,” Gelinas told the Toronto Star. “They got access to information that should never have been accessible to anyone.”
Gelinas also mentioned cases involving two Ontarians who had also been turned away at the border because of their mental health history.
Lawyer Barry Swardon said that he had dealt with “many people who have had a similar problem,” adding that non-criminal personal information about individuals is routinely recorded in the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC ) database and shared with the FBI.
Human rights lawyer Ryan Fritsch said the discriminatory practice could prevent victims of depression from seeking help.
“It breaks my heart. This has a chilling effect on people reaching out for help. People start to think, well, next time I’m not going to make the call – the call for help,” he said, because there will be a record of that call and it could get into a police database.
Since anti-establishment political opinions are now increasingly being characterized as forms of mental illness, how long before critics of government agencies like the DHS have their travel rights revoked?