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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2009

The Tradeoff between Privacy & Protection

By Penni Stewart
Spring brings the conference season, a time of travel to far-flung destinations and for international colleagues to visit Canada. Before setting off, however, be aware that global security initiatives are making travel more precarious. The measures include our Passenger Protect program (a Ca­nadian version of the no-fly list maintained by the United States) and new border security measures, including enhanced drivers licences. In March, Secure Flight, the official name of a new U.S. aviation security program, became operative on several commercial carriers.

Since 9/11, U.S. security concerns have driven unprecedented growth in surveillance and control infrastructures around the world. For Canadians, this has also meant ongoing U.S. demands to harmonize our security policies, especially around border controls, through programs like the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Ostensibly designed to prevent global terrorism, the combination of new technologies and increased traditional border surveillance, creates the capacity for a system of mass surveillance that erodes our Charter rights, freedom of movement and privacy. A small example is the increasingly common practice for Canadian hotels to ask for photo identification at check-in.

Heightened border screening has resulted in selective denial of entry to individuals with a labour, political or activist history, who are members of racialized groups, religious minorities or other marginalized groups, all compounded by the significant risks of mistaken identity.

In March, British MP George Galloway was denied entry to Canada, and in January, Bill Ayers, an American education professor scheduled to speak at the University of Toronto, was turned back at the Canadian border. It’s fair to say academic staff across Canada were outraged over these recent entry refusals to people whose threat, it seems, was to the ideas of the current government. CAUT protested vigorously in both cases.

No-fly and watchlists are proliferating. According to the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, whose research project on the surveillance of travellers collects stories from individuals affected, watchlists were likely to contain more than one million names by the end of 2008. Under Canada’s surveillance system, the names of individuals identified secretly as posing an immediate threat to aviation safety are put on Transport Canada’s “specified persons” list. Airline passengers are screened against this list prior to receiving a boarding pass and if a match is found the person can potentially be denied the right to fly and police are alerted.

Guidelines for determining who is on the no-fly list include current or past involvement with a terrorist group or conviction of a life threatening and serious offence and being designated as someone who might endanger aviation safety. Under such broad and subjective criteria many political organizations and individuals can be deemed unacceptable.

Frequently background information on individuals is unreliable and people with common names are at risk of mistaken identity. The program has already grounded a number of Canadians who argue they are false matches. Like the two young Canadian boys who share the name of Alistair Butt, a name that appears on the no-fly list, or Glenda Hutton, a retired school secretary from Vancouver, who doesn’t want to take the chance of flying abroad because she’s convinced her name remains on a U.S. security watchlist.

The Passenger Protect program has been widely condemned by civil liberties advocates. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, for example, argues the program places due process, equality and mobility rights at risk. Canada’s privacy commissioners have also sounded an alarm that the program may endanger privacy rights as personal information becomes widely distributed.

With its Secure Flight program, the U.S. has gone a step further. Under this new program, passengers on flights passing through U.S. airspace must first be vetted and approved by American authorities before being allowed to board in Canada — even if the flight will not land in the U.S. Information relayed as part of the passenger pre-screening program will be extensive and include name, gender, birth date, trip itinerary, frequent flyer profiles, and credit card and medical information. Airlines will be required to give up passenger information 72 hours prior to departure. The implications of this program are staggering, as it creates the means to track citizens’ movements.

Tracking is not only accomplished by air. In British Columbia you can opt for an “enhanced driver’s licence” (EDL) and those who don’t drive can request an “enhanced identification card” (EIC). Manitoba and Quebec have followed suit with their own EDL/EIC programs and Ontario and Nova Scotia are pursuing EDL/EIC programs. Enhanced licences embed a long-range radio-frequency identification chip with a unique identifying number for the cardholder. Enhanced cards are designed to provide a passport alternative for Canadians traveling to the U.S. by land or sea.

According to the Ontario Government website, the photo card will be useful for “everyday transactions such as opening bank accounts.” Unfortunately, the tradeoff is between privacy and ease of mobility. The information transmitted by radio signals can be “read” remotely and covertly by anyone with a relatively inexpensive and commercially available RFID reader, and this raises worries about identity theft and unwanted tracking and surveillance. The Privacy Commissioner of Ontario has called for switch technology that would turn the RFID chip on and off.

Are these fears about the potential loss of civil rights an overreaction to legitimate state efforts to protect citizens? CAUT doesn’t think so. We have become so concerned about the lack of informed and open debate on the risk these security measures pose to civil liberties that we have joined the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group coalition to keep tabs on the global security agenda.

In response to an article on page A3 of last month’s issue, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has informed CAUT that the Transportation Security Administration’s Secure Flight program will collect the following information on all Canadians to determine if they will be allowed to board international flights that fly over but do not land in the United States: full name, date of birth, gender, and passport information (if available), but not frequent flyer profiles, credit card information or medical information, or other data in each person’s Passenger Name Record. This additional information will be received by another arm of Homeland Security — U.S. Customs and Border Protection.