Border Audio Monitoring: Feds Halt Plan To Eavesdrop At Crossings Pending Study Of Privacy Implications

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Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 16, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick | CP

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.'"

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