Canada's no-fly list is 'very mysterious' and leaves targets little recourse, say critics

The Canadian government expanded the scope of its no-fly list last year but remains mum on key details of who's not allowed to fly in this country and why.

Bill C-51 expanded scope of Canada's no-fly list, but government has given few details of who's on it

The Canadian government doesn't disclose how many people are on its no-fly list or who they are. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Few people extol the comforts of flying on commercial airlines, but for those unlucky enough to share a name with someone on a government no-fly list or who have ended up on the list by mistake, flying is a truly uncomfortable experience full of repeated, intrusive security checks and long delays.

The Canadian government expanded the scope of its no-fly list last year but remains mum on key details of exactly who isn't allowed to fly in this country and why. Critics say officials need to be more transparent about how names get added to the list and how those put there unjustly can be removed.

Recently, two Canadian families have expressed dismay that their children, all six years old or younger, have been repeatedly singled out at airports because their names are on the no-fly list.

It seems like in the past months, we are receiving more stories like that of people who think that they are on a no-fly list.- Monia Mazigh, International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group

Six-year-old Syed Adam Ahmed has been flagged as a travel risk since he was a toddler, his family says. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale is now investigating his case.

"It's a very mysterious process," said Colin Bennett, a University of Victoria political science professor who studies surveillance and privacy.

"I think it's likely to be something that is going to follow him [Syed] and his family and his name for a very long time."

Bill C-51 changes scope of list

The Canadian government created its first no-fly list in 2007, dubbed the Passenger Protect Program, partly in response to U.S. security concerns raised after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks about Canadian flights passing through American airspace, Bennett said.

Syed Adam Ahmed, 6, has trouble travelling because his name appears on the no-fly list, his parents say. (CBC)
The program gave the minister of public safety the right to prohibit people from boarding a plane if they posed "an immediate threat to aviation security," according to an archived Transport Canada webpage describing the program.

This meant that prior to the passage of Bill C-51 the government would have had to believe the person planned to damage the aircraft or hurt the people onboard, Bennett said. A member of a known terrorist group, for example, could be denied boarding on the premise that they could endanger the safety of the public while aboard the plane.

The criteria for making the list seems to have changed when former prime minister Stephen Harper's government passed the controversial C-51 anti-terrorism bill, said Bennett. The bill included something called the Secure Air Travel Act (SATA), which, Bennett said, attempts to prevent known or suspected terrorists from travelling altogether.

Under the act, anyone who travels by plane with plans to commit any of the terrorism-related offences in Canada's Criminal Code after landing can now be put on the no-fly list.

With that broader definition, "the list is likely to get longer," Bennett said.

Concern over false positives

It's unclear how many people are on Canada's no-fly list, but commonly cited estimates range from 500 to 2,000. America's terror watch list names more than one million people, the American Civil Liberties Union has estimated.

Public Safety Canada declined to disclose the exact number of names on the no-fly list.

The parents of Naseer Muhammad Ali say the Toronto boy has triggered a security alert because his name is on the no-fly list every time he has flown, beginning when he was just 10 weeks old. (Family photo)
"We cannot comment on these operational details for security reasons," wrote Mylène Croteau, a spokeswoman for the department, in an email to CBC News.

Airlines are provided with the names, dates of birth and genders of people on the no-fly list. If a match turns up during pre-boarding security screening, the minister decides whether or not the person should be allowed to travel, according to Public Safety Canada.

If, indeed, the list has grown since the passage of Bill C-51 last May, it's likely the number of false positives is increasing as well, Bennett said.

During the first three years of the program, there were about 850 false positives, then director general of aviation security for Transport Canada Laureen Kinney said in a 2010 committee hearing.

The International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, which considers the no-fly list "an unconstitutional program," started tracking how many people felt they were mistakenly or unfairly targeted by a watch list in 2008.

It published a report of its findings in February 2010, but the organization still receives stories of airport and border-crossing troubles, said national co-ordinator Monia Mazigh.

"It seems like in the past months we are receiving more stories like that of people who think that they are on a no-fly list, or have been prevented to enter the United States, or who have been harassed at the border," she said.

Little recourse

Six-year-old Ahmed and others in his situation have little recourse under SATA to remove their names from the no-fly list.

Public Safety Canada acknowledges that passengers with same or similar names as ones on the no-fly list may experience travel delays, but spokeswoman Croteau said delays can also occur when a person's name appears on another nation's no-fly list.

People who consistently run into these problems should contact the customer service department of the airline they plan to travel on, she said, "to explain their situation and to see what steps can be taken prior to arriving at the airport."

Individuals whose name appears on the Canadian no-fly list can apply to have it removed but only if they have been "denied transportation" and "have received a written direction when attempting to obtain a boarding pass." Simply experiencing frequent delays and extra security screening at airports is not enough. The application for removal is made to the Passenger Protect Recourse Office.

Croteau would not say how successful such applications are, but Mazigh said it's "very unlikely" the government would remove a name from the list.

"There is nothing really that people can do," she said.

Which is why it's all the more important for the government to be more transparent about the process of how people's names end up on the list, she said, so that they can better challenge that decision.