OTTAWA — The federal government should not to hand over the private information of Canadian citizens to U.S. authorities without adequate safeguards, the country’s privacy watchdogs have warned.
In an effort to whittle down border barriers to promote economic growth, a Canada-U.S. perimeter security action plan was announced in December that will result in “unprecedented cross-border information sharing,” Canada’s federal and provincial privacy commissioners said in a joint news release Monday.
“I’m concerned that Canadians don’t understand all the implications of these programs,” the federal privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart told The Huffington Post Canada about the new Beyond The Border plan. The federal government needs to be more transparent, she said, so that the new rules don’t come as a scary surprise.
What Stoddart is particularly concerned about is the informal sharing of citizens’ information.
“In the past, informal sharing has led to some real problems in Canada, so we want to make sure that the extent and the amount of information that is shared is subject to formal written agreement,” she said.
Referencing the case of Maher Arar, the Syrian Canadian who was detained in the U.S. and sent to Syria where he was tortured after the RCMP passed unchecked information to American authorities, Stoddart said Canadians need a clear recourse if they suspect incorrect information about them has been passed along to the Americans.
“With shared information on travellers, if there are problems on the U.S. side, it is not really clear how Canadians can really access the American system where formal rights are only given to American citizens and to American residents, and there is no privacy commissioner,” she said.
Not only do law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border plan to share more information, but under the action plan Canadian travellers’ biometric data will be demanded by U.S. authorities in the years to come.
“This is far more extensive, we are talking about biometrics database, we are talking about common traveller screening programs, we are talking about a shared U.S.-Canada exit system and for the moment the two systems do not have a common method of redress if people think that their information is misused or if they are on the wrong watch-lists,” Stoddart said.
“And you remember all the problems that people had being erroneously on (the U.S.) watch-list? Their watch-lists have many, many names on them and we are concerned that there be efficient and rapid redress of that problem,” she added.
Stoddart is also raising alarm about the likely expansion of drone flights to monitor the border.
“We understand that (greater environmental awareness) implies, and is a reference to, increasing the use of unmanned technology along Canada’s own borders and along the U.S.-Canada border,” Stoddart told HuffPost.
“Drones are hugely invasive technology that has major, major implications for stealthy surveillance of people without them knowing … We have huge problems with drones (and) we are very concerned about drones being in Canadian skies on a more or less permanent basis,” she added, noting that there should be strict rules surrounding their use.
Federal government departments have just begun engaging the Privacy Commissioner’s office, but Stoddart hasn’t yet seen what they are drafting. The government is set to release so-called privacy principles regarding the action plan on May 30.
Along with her provincial and territorial colleagues, Stoddart called Monday for the sensitive information of Canadians to be kept on Canadian soil so that the federal government can greater control its use.
The country’s privacy watchdogs also called for greater public discussion.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Washington D.C. Monday, said the three leaders discussed "continued co-operation in managing our borders" and the streamlining of regulations and global supply chains, but made few comments directely related to the Permimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness Action Plan.
Ken Anderson, the assistant privacy commissioner of Ontario, said the group is trying to ensure that lawmakers and those drafting the new regulations in Canada and the U.S., as well as the public, pay attention.
“We are waving our hands saying don’t forget about us,” he said.