Canadian border agents use high-tech tools to prevent smuggling

Agents charged with preventing contraband from entering Canada are using high-tech tools to combat the flow of drugs and weapons attempting to be smuggled into the country.

Underwater robots, radiation signature detectors, X-ray machines used to keep border secure

Agents charged with preventing contraband from entering Canada are using high-tech tools to combat the flow of drugs and weapons attempting to be smuggled into the country.

CBC News was granted exclusive access at the port and airport in Halifax to see how Canada Border Services agents are trying to stem the flow of drugs, illegal weapons and other contraband.

Among the technology used by Canada Border Services Agency officials is a remote-operated vehicle — an underwater robot that scans the hulls of cargo ships docked in Halifax Harbour.

The metal contraption is lowered into the water, attached to the dock by a yellow cable. A border services agent on the wharf, inside a white truck, fiddles with a lever that looks like a video game control panel. The operator guides the remote-operated vehicle under water, around the hull of the ship.

Border agents watch a screen as the robot transmits video. They're looking for any spaces underneath the vessel that could be used to hide drugs, weapons or any other contraband.

Underwater robots, radiation detectors used 

The remote-operated vehicle is just one of many high-tech tools used by CBSA officers across Canada. At the port of Halifax, officers also use radiation portals and X-ray imaging to keep smugglers at bay.

A CBSA official checks the low dose X-ray sent through cargo containers. (Stephen Puddicombe/CBC)

Port security, in the past, has been knocked for allegedly only checking two per cent of containers.

Colin Murchison, the superintendent of marine operations at the port in Halifax, says that's not so.

"We look at 100 per cent of the cargo entering Canada. We screen the documentation of every piece of cargo entering Canada," he said.

"Based on that risk assessment, we set up for a higher level of exam — whether that be through large-scale imaging such as our [X-ray machine] or through a full examination where we off-load all the cargo from the container itself."

But statistics obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act show the number of seizures and the amount of contraband seized at all ports — land, sea and air — have decreased between 2012 and 2013.

The same statistics also show drugs remain the No. 1 contraband item. More than $140 million worth of cocaine and $82 million worth of heroin was found by CBSA officials between 2012 and 2013. The value of those drugs was greater in 2013 than the previous year.

40 per cent of seizures drug-related

Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are the hot spots for drug seizures across Canada, although Halifax has made it into the top 10 biggest seizures over the past couple of years.

Almost 40 per cent of all contraband picked up by Canada Border Services agents is drug related.

Officials say part of the reason for the decrease in seizures is that technology is a deterrent against smuggling.

But Jason McMichael, the national vice-president of the union that represents all CBSA officers across the country, disagrees.

"I believe there is just as much, or more, contraband crossing the border. The men and women who are tasked with protecting the border, they're doing a great job," he told CBC News.

"But the fact is they are constantly asked to be doing more with less and it's a tough job and there are certainly significant quantities of contraband entering the country."

McMichael claims there are 800 fewer front-line officers on the ground then there were a couple of years ago.

"Quite simply, it's human resources. Certainly our contraband detection tools are very, very good, but we need more bodies on the ground and bottom line is our bodies are going down rather than going up," he said.

Another criticism of the Canada Border Services Agency is the reduction in the number of sniffer dogs used at seaports across the country. There was an outcry in 2012 when the federal government made the announcement it planned to cut the number of dogs and dog handlers.

Border agents 'managing just fine'

Dominic Maillet, the head of operations for the CBSA at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport, defends the decision.

"The dogs were just another tool we can use, we have ample tools still. It's all about effectiveness. We had dogs, we no longer had them — it doesn't mean we are no longer efficient," he said. 

Murchison agrees.

"We have adapted our techniques to counter that so we have more technology. We have officers who are well trained in searching, finding and interrogating. We are managing just fine," he said.

Murchison points to the radiation portals as one of the technologies making their jobs easier.

Every cargo container passes through yellow metal beams near the fence of the port. The portals are several metres high and spread far enough apart to allow a truck with a cargo container to pass through it.

Murchison said everything has its own radiation signature, which allows officials to detect whether something suspicious is in the container.

"There is naturally occurring radiation in everything. Our officers are trained to know what — for a particular type of cargo — if it makes sense, it is allowed to go on," he said.

"If it doesn't, we will come in and investigate further and deal with it accordingly."

CBSA officials agree they could always use more boots on the ground, but they say advanced technological tools are doing what many humans can't — and officials believe those technologies are only going to get better.