A Dangerous Brew

Perimeter Security Plan threatens privacy and civil rights
December 1, 2012

Fillet of a fenny snake, in the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, lizard's leg, and owlet's wing —
For a charm of powerful trouble, like a hell-broth boil and  bubble.
     —William Shakespeare. Macbeth.

Shakespeare's hags aren't the only ones now casting curious items into a bubbling cauldron. The Harper government has been quietly adding ingredients to the troublesome brew called Beyond the Border Action Plan for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness.

This is not a single piece of legislation that will ever be debated by Parliament. It is a policy direction that consists of soft-sell strategic objectives around economic prosperity, implemented with pilot projects and regulatory changes affecting the cross-border movement of people and goods and cozy collaborations on security and information sharing. 

 Like ornaments on a Christmas tree, these all hang together on the branches of the ever-growing economic growth and jobs agenda, while reaching deep into adjacent domains, including civil rights and privacy.   

October press releases describe a pilot project to facilitate cargo screening at the Port of Prince Rupert, B.C. – a legislative harmonization effort to expedite the movement of goods -- and an agreement to work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to protect cybersystems, respond to and recover from cyber disruptions, and launch public cyber-safety campaigns.

 Elements of the plan are also contained in the second omnibus budget 2012 implementation bill – Bill C-45. The electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) enables the collection of personal information – the scope of which is entirely unclear – from certain visitors to Canada. This data collection is meant to function as a mini-visa for persons coming from visa-exempt countries like Europe and Australia.  Canada's Privacy Commissioner has noted that, “to a large degree, these matters have been shaped behind closed doors, most notably through arrangements with the U.S. rather than through open and public debate.”

These are only the most recent in a flurry of initiatives designed to harmonize Canadian and U.S. procedures relating to border security. Various elements of the plan first emerged in briefing notes obtained by Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill through an Access to Information request.  They include:

  • a plan to keep track of everyone entering and leaving the country with the help of information sharing between governments;
  • a strategy for greater exchange of biographic and biometric data without adequate consultation;
  • adapting provisions regarding the treatment of refugees;
  • disturbing possibilities for private information to be passed to a third country; and
  • downward harmonization of regulations regarding data sharing and personal privacy protection.

In a keynote address to an October security conference, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews praised the Harper government's progress on cyber and critical infrastructure security “in the midst of a rapidly evolving threat environment.” Despite his recent misstep on Bill C-30, Toews is still the most effective spokesperson for the fear-and-dread rhetoric that supports much of this government's law and order agenda.

Policy laundering

This is a form of “policy laundering,” say civil rights and privacy advocates. Under the guise of facilitating trade, it installs mechanisms that have long-term implications for privacy and civil rights. Cross-border law enforcement initiatives, new air and border security screening provisions, new technology at crossing points, and new residency requirements for NEXUS card holders are all among the proposed initiatives. The overarching concern is the very real possibility that U.S. security/privacy regimes will predominate where Canadian practices differ. Bit by bit, we would be giving up the ability to write our own policy on many of these issues. It could lead to U.S control over such matters as who can fly in and out of Canada and to data-sharing with countries with poor human rights records.

“This is policy by stealth,” said Michael Vonn, policy director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “Despite the on-line survey which disingenuously asked Canadians if they would like to cross the border more easily but not if they would be willing to compromise their civil rights to get there, consultation has been nonexistent.  This initiative is definitely flying under the radar of Canadians and no one has any idea what our government is committing to.”

Civil rights advocates have asked the government for an audit outlining what records on Canadians it currently holds and what is already being shared. Privacy Commissioners and Ombudsman across the country have issued a joint statement asking that:

  • any measures to share data be accompanied by adequate oversight and review mechanisms;
    civil society be involved in deliberations;
    the information about Canadians be protected by Canadian law; and
    surveillance technologies such as drones be subject to appropriate controls.

All are ringing the alarm bells that the privacy and civil rights of Canadians are in danger of being traded away in a series of undercover moves promoted as trade facilitation initiatives.

(Marita Moll is a CCPA Research Associate.)