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Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

The federal privacy watchdog says the personal information of Canadian airline passengers who fly through U.S. airspace might end up in the hands of American police and immigration officials.

Privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart's conclusion is squarely at odds with the view of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who insisted this week the U.S. would use the data only for air security purposes.

Given her concerns, Stoddart made several recommendations Thursday to a House of Commons committee studying federal legislation that would allow airlines to share passenger information required by the U.S. Secure Flight program.

Beginning next year, Secure Flight will permit the U.S. to collect the names, genders and birth dates of about five million Canadians who fly through American airspace every year en route to destinations such as the Caribbean and Mexico even though their planes never touch U.S. soil.

Stoddart said airlines would also be required to hand over information such as passport data and itinerary details to the U.S. if it's available.

"Since this information will always be available for international flights from Canada flying over the U.S. airspace, that full information will always be provided," she said.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration plans to compare the Canadian traveller information against security watch lists. As a result, Canadians could be singled out for extra scrutiny or even barred from flying over the U.S.

Data can be used for immigration, law enforcement purposes

Stoddart said while the U.S. privacy impact assessment of the program is "somewhat unclear" on how the data would be used, "our understanding is that information collected can be disclosed and used for purposes other than aviation security, such as law enforcement and immigration purposes."

Stoddart stressed Thursday her office isn't questioning the U.S. government's authority to implement its Secure Flight Program, since international law clearly says sovereignty extends to a state's airspace.

"However, the Canadian government has a duty to protect the privacy and civil rights of its citizens," she said. "Thus it's important that we understand how Secure Flight may affect Canadian travellers."

Opposition MPs on the committee have expressed concern about what the U.S. might do with the Canadian information collected under the program.

Canada should work with airlines and the U.S. to "minimize the impact" of Secure Flight, Stoddart said.

She suggested the federal cabinet could approve regulations limiting the amount of personal information passed to the Americans to the bare minimum: name, gender and birth date.

Stoddart recommends Canada also:

  • Question U.S. plans to retain the information for seven days if there's no match and seven years in the case of potential matches.
  • Negotiate "robust and accessible" redress procedures for Canadians who are prevented from flying as a result of Secure Flight.
  • Inform the public about Secure Flight and the Passenger Protect program — the Canadian no-fly list — to prevent confusion.

Under the U.S. program, records of actual watch-list matches would be retained for 99 years.

Conservative MP Brian Jean said he had no problem with U.S. authorities keeping information about even possible matches indefinitely.

"As far as I'm concerned, those people that are going to be on the list for seven years or 99 years, they can keep that forever because I want to be safe when I fly," Jean said.