OTTAWA - The federal government has hit the pause button on its plan to eavesdrop at border points after confirmation Tuesday that some travellers at the Halifax airport were secretly recorded.
But there were still many unanswered questions about the surveillance plan.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said he has told the Canada Border Services Agency to place audio monitoring on hold until a study of the privacy implications is complete.
Travellers have expressed concern about the budding plan by the federal agency to record conversations at airports and border crossings.
One insider said the only location that audio recording actually took place was in the secondary examination area of Halifax's Stanfield International Airport.
The conversations were between border officers and air passengers singled out for closer scrutiny.
"All these recordings have been deleted," said one official, who asked not to be named.
Toews wants to see a privacy impact assessment by the border agency and recommendations from the federal privacy commissioner before going any further.
"I share the concerns of Canadians regarding the privacy impact of audio recordings, even when it occurs in a restricted area in an airport," Toews said in the House of Commons during the daily question period.
Toews received a detailed briefing from the border agency Tuesday morning and was not satisfied it had taken the appropriate steps to safeguard privacy.
It came just one day after the minister defended the border agency initiative.
On Tuesday, the NDP accused Toews of flip-flopping and ignoring safeguards to protect the personal information of Canadians.
"Nothing was done to ensure that this project on eavesdropping would respect privacy — absolutely nothing. The minister now acknowledges this fact, and it was really high time," said New Democrat MP Rosane Dore Lefebvre.
She asked Toews how many conversations had already been recorded without the knowledge of travellers, and how long they would be kept.
"I'm not aware of any private conversations having been recorded by this measure," Toews replied.
He did not elaborate on his definition of "private" — which may exclude exchanges between travellers and border officials.
Toews said Monday that the border agency "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."
The privacy rights of law-abiding Canadians are respected at all times, Toews added.
The minister said Tuesday it is important for agencies to have the right tools to catch smugglers and criminals. It is equally important that these tools do not unduly infringe on individuals' privacy, he added.
The border services agency did not respond to questions.
The privacy commissioner's office says it has yet to receive a full outline of the border agency's plans for enhanced surveillance.
"We are currently in the dark about what is truly envisaged, and that's precisely the issue," said assistant privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier.
When word of the program broke in the media last week, the privacy commissioner's office contacted the border agency, she added.
"They said, 'Look, we are doing a privacy impact assessment and you will get it soon.'"
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>