Ottawa halts program to eavesdrop on travellers
Ottawa has put the brakes on a high-tech eavesdropping program that would allow authorities to listen in on conversations taking place at border crossings and airports.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews asked the Canadian Border Services Agency to halt the contentious program on Tuesday after numerous critics denounced it as an invasion of privacy.
The audio surveillance program has been suspended until a Privacy Impact Assessment can be conducted and the government can review recommendations from the Privacy Commissioner, according to a spokesperson for Toews.
The CBSA plan involved hooking up state-of-the-art microphones and cameras at select travel hubs to listen in on the discussions of travellers.
Federal officials say Toews’ decision comes after the CBSA mistakenly activated the surveillance equipment at an airport and recorded a conversation between an agent and a traveller, CTV’s Daniele Hamamdjian reported.
Assistant privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier told CTV’s Power Play Tuesday she is pleased that Toews has halted the program until the assessment is completed.
“Minister Toews has put the process back on track and we welcome that,” she said.
Bernier explained what a Privacy Impact Assessment actually entails.
A PIA takes a proposed program or policy and assesses what privacy implications are involved, said Bernier.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner then reviews the assessment and makes recommendations to ensure the program complies with privacy laws.
“The outcome is a program that both meets policy objectives, such as public safety, and respect for privacy,” said Bernier.
In order to satisfy the privacy office, Bernier said the CBSA must provide empirical evidence that there is a need to collect audio and video recordings of travellers, as well as show that the information collected will be handled properly.
The CBSA must set clear parameters on what kind of conversations officers will be collecting and provide rationale on why the conversations must be recorded, said Bernier.
“For example, is it only the conversations between the officer and an individual that will be taped or is it more?” she asked. “If it is more, why? For what purposes?
“That is precisely the point of a full privacy impact assessment,” she said.
The privacy office does not approve policies, it only makes recommendations, said Bernier.
Bernier said a similar assessment was successfully done before the use of body scanners in Canada’s airports was implemented.
Surveillance cameras are typical fixtures at airports and border crossings, but many argue the introduction of microphones takes the idea of security too far.
Mary-Jane Cardillo, a Florida resident who is visiting British Columbia, said the prospect of a border agent being able to listen in on her discussions is worrisome.
"As long as I'm in my car, (conversation) should stay in my car," she told CTV British Columbia on Monday.
A representative for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association says her concerns are justified.
If the audio eavesdropping program is reintroduced, it will allow for the "seamless transfer of Canadians' private information to the United States on the purported justification of security around the border," said BCCLA Policy Director Micheal Vonn.
Even border agents have expressed concern that their workplace conversations might not be so private anymore, according to a spokesperson for the union representing the workers.
"If that dialogue is being captured, what's it going to be used for? Who's going to be listening to it? How long is it going to be kept?" said Bob Jackson of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
For its part, Minister Toews' office has said the technology could be helpful in detecting criminal activity, but concedes that it doesn't want to infringe on anyone's rights.
"It is important for agencies tasked with protecting Canadians to have the right tools to catch smugglers and keep criminals and other unwelcome individuals out of Canada," read a statement from Public Safety spokesperson Julie Carmichael.
"It is equally important that these tools do not infringe on individuals' privacy in a way that is unjustified or unnecessary to ensure security."
The CBSA manages 119 land-border crossing and 13 international airports
With a report from CTV British Columbia's Scott Roberts