Travellers already under the watchful eye of security officials at Canadian airports and land border crossings could face increased surveillance in certain customs-controlled areas as the Canada Border Services Agency will soon monitor them with high-definition cameras and use microphones to listen in on their conversations.
Government officials are being vague on the details of the program, even to the country's privacy watchdog. But CBC News has confirmed CBSA has installed cameras and microphones at the MacDonald Cartier Airport in Ottawa to watch and eavesdrop on travellers.
It is unclear when the new equipment will be operational.
Assistant privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier said she was surprised to see recent reports of the measures.
"We are so much in the dark of the scope and details of the measures that I couldn't even comment on it," she said.
However, Bernier said that according to Treasury Board policy, if a department wants to implement a measure that affects privacy, it must do an assessment on how privacy will be impacted.
"We never received a privacy impact assessment, and that is key," Bernier said. "That is what the process should be. I am told they [CBSA] are working on a privacy impact assessment. We will review it and make our recommendations as we always do."
In an email, CBSA spokesperson Luc Nadon said audio-visual "monitoring and recording technology has been in use for many years," but did not say what border crossings were using the technology or exactly how long it has been in use.
Nadon went on to say that CBSA is not undertaking a "national installation of new equipment."
Signs to be posted in monitored areas
New HD cameras and audio recording technology will be added "as a part of a natural lifecycle replacement and usually coincide with scheduled facilities renovations," he said.
The agency wouldn't say whether any other Canadian locations would get an audio-video upgrade or when the current locations would be up and running, but says the public will be given notice. Basic signs will be posted where monitoring and recording is taking place.
In question period on Monday, when asked about privacy concerns, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said CBSA operates customs-controlled areas "for screening international travellers arriving at airports across Canada, including monitoring video and audio in order to detect and prevent illegal smuggling."
"I assure the member that the privacy rights of law-abiding Canadians are respected at all times," Toews said.
CBSA said most recordings are deleted after a minimum retention period of 30 days. Recordings of incidents that may require further action on the part of CBSA, such as a traveller complaint or incidents that are expected to result in court action, are kept for a minimum of two years.
What you need to know about the Canada-U.S. border deal
Canada and the U.S. are each other's largest trading partners. More than $1.5-billion in goods cross the border each day. The "Action Plan on Perimeter Security and Economic Competiveness" is a road map, not a formal agreement, aimed at making trade and travel across the border easier and more efficient. <blockquote>The plan focuses on four key areas. 1. Addressing threats early 2. Trade and economic growth 3. Building on existing border enforcement programs 4. Emergency and cyber infrastructure</blockquote>
Addressing threats early
Canada and the U.S. will be making a number of changes aimed at addressing security threats as early as possible and reducing the impact on trade and travel. The two countries will: <blockquote>1. Begin tracking and recording entry and exit of travellers across the border and verifying the identity of foreigners for the purposes of immigration decision making. 2. Begin conducting joint threat assessments and sharing core information. 3. Working together on developing best practices to counter threats from violent extremists. 4. Begin aligning ground- and air-cargo security to reduce the need for re-screening. Canadian travellers will no longer have their bags screened twice when transferring flights in the United States.</blockquote>
Facilitating trade and economic growth
Canada and the U.S. will be making a number of changes aimed at facilitating trade and economic growth <blockquote>The two countries will: 1. Expand programs for low-risk travellers, such as NEXUS, to make border crossing more efficient. 2. Upgrade infrastructure at key crossings to ease congestion. 3. Begin using radio frequency identification technology to read documents automatically as vehicles approach the border. 4. Create a unified approach for preclearing goods crossing by rail, sea or road. 5. Set up a single window for companies to send required info only once. 6. Make it easier for low-value shipments to clear customs </blockquote>
Building on pre-existing border enforcement programs
Canada and the U.S. will make a number of changes to existing border enforcement programs. <blockquote>The two countries will: 1. Make Shiprider a permanent program. The Shiprider program allows U.S. and Canadian maritime law enforcement officials to operate independent of the border to help combat crime. 2. Begin testing the Shiprider model for land enforcement. This means Canadian officials may work on the U.S. side of the border and vice versa. 3. Begin using voice-over-Internet technology so law enforcement officials can communicate across the border with greater ease. </blockquote>
Enhancing emergency and cyber infrastructure
Canada and the U.S. will be making a number of changes aimed at enhancing emergency and cyber infrastructure. <blockquote>The two countries will: 1. Work together more closely on international cyber-security efforts. 2. Enhance joint readiness for health, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear events. 3. Jointly develop strategies for managing traffic on the border in the event of an emergency. </blockquote>
Sovereignty and human rights
Both governments are stressing the all the initiatives in the plan were developed under two principles. <blockquote>1. That each nation has the right to act independent of the other in accordance with their own laws and interests. 2. That both countries will endeavour to promote human rights, privacy, the rule of law and civil liberties.</blockquote>