Working Paper 166

“Don’t Blame Me, It’s Just the Computer Telling Me To Do This”: computer attribution and the discretionary authority of Canada Border Services Agency officers

Ian Kalman

Department ‘Law & Anthropology’

Year of publication

Number of pages

Working Paper 166

In this paper, I demonstrate some of the ways in which computer technologies have changed how border officers and travelers in North America interact. Whereas historically, discretionary activities have been understood by officers largely in the context of “non-invocation” (LaFave 2006) of their legal authority, computers made it increasingly difficult for officers to choose when not to invoke the law. Attributing demands to a computer has opened a new space for officers to view themselves as discretionary, as they are now choosing the manner in which they justify their practices to a traveler. Such attributions can help them ‘save face’ and develop or maintain rapport with travelers, potentially rendering them more compliant in that exchange and future exchanges. Face work (Goffman 1967) is an essential, albeit under-examined facet of border work. As much as computers have contributed to a feeling of distance between travelers and border operations, they have also enabled new possibilities for closeness. Here, I supplement the limited literature on the ways in which Canadian border work has changed in recent decades by offering ethnographic illustrations of officers’ responses to the introduction of computer-generated referrals to their work and some impacts of these referrals on relationships with traveling publics.

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