The Canada Border Service Agency is reluctant to explain the extent to which it monitors passengers across the country, but internal documents obtained by CBC News make it clear that overt audio-video surveillance occurs at "all CBSA offices."

The explanation is contained in a 15-page document, entitled Policy on the Overt Use of Audio-Video Monitoring and Recording Technology, which spells out CBSA’s surveillance policy in detail.

The October, 2011 document, obtained by CBC News under Access to Information, explains that, "Over the past several decades, the CBSA has increasingly implemented the use of audio-visual technology to carry out its mandate and to ensure the protection of its assets and staff. The use of closed-circuit television cameras to monitor facilities and operations are now an integral part of the CBSA's security framework and operations management."

In an email to CBC News, an agency spokesperson says the policy was in place even before the agency was created in 2003, "and is operational at ports of entry across Canada."

"To clarify, our AV equipment, including future audio recording capabilities, is deliberately overt. We are only interested in capturing the interactions between our officers and clients, with a goal of improving service to travellers."

Questions about CBSA's surveillance policies arose this week after the Ottawa Citizen reported the agency had installed new audio equipment at Ottawa's Macdonald-Cartier International Airport.

The Privacy Commissioner's office raised concern about the reports, saying it didn't have any details of the plans. According to Treasury Board guidelines, the agency should have conducted a full privacy assessment before installing the equipment, and then submitted that assessment to commissioner's office. That didn't happen.

The CBSA's broader surveillance policy, detailed in the documents obtained by CBC News, also requires review by the Privacy Commissioner under the guidelines.

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson from the Privacy Commissioner said CBSA submitted the documents for an initial review but has yet to conduct a full assessment.

"It turns out that CBSA provided us with an earlier copy of the draft policy and we raised concerns," writes the office's spokesperson. "For example, while it was clear there was a policy being developed on overt surveillance, we noted a lack of reference to any policy on covert surveillance. Furthermore, we expected consultations to continue and to receive a full Privacy Impact Assessment upon the policy being finalised and implemented. We have not received this yet."

Once a privacy assessment is submitted to the commissioner for review, the commissioner can recommend ways to safeguard privacy rights, but the recommendations are non-binding.

Public Safety Vic Toews reassured MPs on Monday that the government would respect privacy rights and defended the agency’s use of monitoring equipment to prevent smuggling and protect passenger safety. But the next day, he ordered the agency to halt all recordings until CBSA had conducted the privacy assessment.

Toews added that the only proposal for recordings he was aware of were for overt recordings between border officers and travellers. He said he'd heard of a recording between an agent and a traveller but was unaware of any covert or "private conversations having been recorded by this measure."

Extent of surveillance still unclear

During this week's controversy, the agency said it had yet to activate the audio recording device at the Ottawa airport. The agency also explained that it routinely employs audio-video recordings at other locations, but refused to say which ones.

CBC News learned that a conversation between a border services agent and passenger was recorded at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport. The recording has since been deleted.

In its emailed response, the agency said, "It is important to note that while combined technology has been installed at some CBSA facilities, audio technology is not enabled and no audio recording is being conducted by the CBSA at primary and secondary areas at this time.

"The CBSA will continue our work to complete a Privacy Impact Assessment on the use of audio-video recording. The CBSA will ensure a close collaboration with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner before we activate audio equipment."

Privacy concerns also featured prominently in an additional, undated border service agency document called Directives on the Overt Use of Audio-Video Monitoring and Recording Technology.

In a subsection entitled Privacy Act, the agency writes:

"Regional operations are responsible for ensuring compliance with the policy on the Overt Use of Audio-Video Monitoring and Recording Technology, these directives and all relevant privacy legislation."

This document makes it clear that the policy is subject to regular reviews “to ensure that they meet the needs of the CBSA and that they are in compliance with all relevant privacy legislation and jurisprudence. Such a review will take place no less frequently than once a year."

The same due diligence also applied to the equipment. "The Programs Branch will maintain a national inventory of the location of all cameras and the purpose for which each camera is used."

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