06/18/2012 10:14 EDT | Updated 08/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Border Agency To Listen In On Travellers' Conversations

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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.

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