Canada's airlines fear violating privacy under new U.S. rules
Canada's major airlines say they will 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, is pleading with the government to find "a permanent solution" to the dilemma posed by the U.S. Secure Flight program.
The program would collect the name, gender and birth date of the approximately five million Canadians who fly through American airspace 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 (TSA) would then vet the names against security watch lists. Passengers whose names appear on the lists could face anything from extra security screening to being barred from a flight. There are also concerns the personal data could be used for purposes unrelated to aviation security.
Washington is still reeling from an apparent attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a jet over Michigan by igniting explosives sewn into his clothes. The near-disaster has put renewed pressure on the TSA to ensure the skies are safe.
Canadian airlines have already begun passing along the personal information for flights that land in the United States. But the requirement to hand over information for international flights through U.S. airspace was put on hold last February pending discussions with the governments of Canada, Mexico and some Caribbean countries.
In a November letter to Bill Baker, deputy minister of Public Safety, the National Airlines Council said Canadian carriers "are not aware of any progress" on the discussions and are concerned the TSA might suddenly enact the overflight provisions.
The council said this would force Canadian airlines to breach either Secure Flight or the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, a federal privacy law that applies to Canadian companies.
An internal Public Safety document prepared last January agrees that sharing such information is "currently prohibited" under the privacy law.
Nicole Baer, a spokeswoman for the federal privacy commissioner, said it was too early to determine whether giving overflight data to the Americans would break Canadian privacy law.
The Public Safety document, obtained under the Access to Information Act, raises other concerns about Secure Flight.
"It is possible that Canadians overflying the United States could be denied boarding based on U.S. no-fly lists that were developed based on lower U.S. risk tolerance," said the January 2009 assessment.
"There are also no guarantees how the U.S. will use the information it obtains from carriers overflying its territory."
The United States has indicated it will waive the Secure Flight requirement to provide information for overflights if Canada creates an equivalent security screening system.
The airlines council favours a homegrown system as long as carriers don't bear any new costs.