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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Tuesday the U.S. has the right to ask for personal information about Canadians flying over U.S. territory. ((Chris Wattie/Reuters))

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews defended federal legislation Tuesday that would pave the way to providing the U.S. with personal information about Canadians flying over that country.

The U.S. has a legal right to request that information, Toews told a Commons committee.

Earlier this year, Canada's major airlines said they would be forced either to break privacy laws or to ignore new American air security rules unless the federal government comes up with a response to U.S. demands for passenger information.

The National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents the four largest Canadian carriers, pleaded with the government to find "a permanent solution" to issues raised by the U.S. Secure Flight program.

The program involves collection of the name, gender and birth date of the approximately five million Canadians who fly through American airspace each year en route to destinations such as the Caribbean, Mexico and South America — even if their planes don't touch the ground in the States.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration would vet the names against security watch lists.

Passengers whose names appear on the list could face anything from extra security screening to being barred from a flight.

Opposition MPs on the Commons transport committee expressed concerns about how Washington might use the information.

Toews assured them the data would be used only for airline security purposes.