01/27/2014 01:45 EST | Updated 03/29/2014 05:59 EDT

Canada-U.S. program could identify EI cheats, globetrotting terrorists

OTTAWA - The Conservative government is looking at using a new information-sharing program with the Americans to catch employment insurance cheats.

The entry-exit tracking program could help police various social benefit programs as well as identify people travelling abroad to engage in terrorism, says a Canada Border Services Agency briefing note obtained under the Access to Information Act.

The federal privacy commissioner has already expressed concern about the program, saying there should be strict limits on the use of personal information gathered through the initiative.

The entry-exit system, to be fully in place by June 30, is a crucial feature of the vaunted perimeter security deal with the United States. The deal is intended to help speed the passage of travellers and cargo across the Canada-U.S. border while beefing up continental security.

The tracking system involves exchanging entry information collected from people at the land border — so that data on entry to one country would serve as a record of exit from the other.

In addition, Canada plans to collect information on people exiting by air — something the United States already does — by requiring airlines to submit passenger manifest data for outbound international flights.

The collection and disclosure of entry and exit information "has the potential to strengthen programs in a number of different departments," says the July 2013 briefing note, recently released to The Canadian Press.

The note, prepared for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, claims the system could "generate long-term savings" by helping zero in on people receiving employment insurance or child family tax benefits while absent from Canada, contrary to program rules.

Information could also be disclosed to the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to support law enforcement and national security operations, the note says. "This is of particular interest given the recent media attention on Canadians travelling abroad to engage in terrorist activities."

The border services agency refused to make anyone available Monday to discuss the program, which received almost $117 million in federal funding.

However, the note includes suggested "key speaking points" that say the project has potential benefits across government "related to strengthening Canada's immigration and border management, national security, law enforcement, and program integrity."

In its latest annual report, the office of the privacy commissioner said it recommended to the border agency that secondary uses of entry/exit information be "strictly limited" and that disclosures to other agencies be "clearly justified."

It also expressed concern about plans to keep information for 75 years and asked the agency to review the "lengthy retention period."

The briefing note says the agency continues to consult the privacy commissioner's office on implementation of the entry-exit initiative to ensure that recommendations are "properly considered and incorporated."

For instance, the border agency placed signs last year at automated land border crossings informing travellers of the data collection under the latest phase of the program.

The possibility of widespread sharing of entry-exit information suggests Canada is moving towards "making the border a punitive space," said Emily Gilbert, director of the Canadian Studies program at the University of Toronto.

"There's multiple questions that arise about who's going to have access to the information and how that information is going to be used."

The interim privacy commissioner could have more to say about the initiative Tuesday in a report on national security activities.

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