Facial scanners now in use at customs in Halifax airport

International travellers arriving at Halifax Stanfield International Airport will have to use new facial scanning technology to declare themselves at the border.

Privacy lawyer says people should understand how their personal data is used

A primary inspection kiosk (PIK) is seen in the foreground of the announcement at Halifax Stanfield. (Robert Short/CBC)

At the start of the busiest travel season of the year, politicians and airport officials announced changes for people using Nova Scotia's biggest airport. 

International travellers arriving at Halifax Stanfield International Airport will have to use new technology to declare themselves at the border. 

The airport has purchased 24 white machines called primary inspection kiosks (PIK) at a cost of $2 million. The machines allow travellers to fill out an electronic version of the paper customs declaration card that previously was handed out during flights. 

"We can't be a Blockbuster government when serving a Netflix citizenry," said Treasury Board president Scott Brison, who was on hand for the announcement. 

The kiosks ask travellers to scan their passports, and then take pictures of the travellers' faces. The machines use facial recognition technology to compare the photos. A human border officer is responsible for doing a final check of the machines' work. 

The CBSA also says travellers can use a smartphone app called eDeclaration along with the white kiosks to get the fastest service. 

More efficient?

The CBSA touted the new system as being more efficient, but Calvin Christiansen, the regional director general for the CBSA, told reporters, "Right now, it's about the same amount of time per travellers that come through.

Calvin Christiansen, the regional director general for the Canada Border Services Agency, explains how a smartphone app can speed up the customs process. (Robert Short/CBC)

"When you use the application, it speeds it up by about 50 per cent of the time. So the more people that use the eDeclaration, the faster the processing will be at the airport." 

Christiansen said no jobs would be lost, and officers who used to process the paper declarations would be moved to other locations within the airport. 

Privacy concerns

A local privacy lawyer says people should be conscious of how their personal information is being used by the CBSA. 

David Fraser says he's particularly cautious about the smartphone app. 

"Certainly I can appreciate them wanting to deal with less paper and to get rid of paper, but I don't think in a million years I would install an app from the Canada Border Services Agency on my own device," he said. 

"They're a law enforcement agency. They already say that I have no expectation of privacy in the contents of my device when I cross the border. I don't have a whole lot of confidence in their restraint once they're inside my phone with an application."

David Fraser is a privacy lawyer in Halifax. (CBC)

Fraser also said the CBSA should be transparent about what information is collected on people and how long it is stored. 

Data encrypted

Christiansen said the agency has complied with procedures required by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. 

Data collected by the kiosks is encrypted before being sent to CBSA systems around the country, and wiped from the machines right after processing. Christiansen said some information may be stored by the agency's computers. 

"Certainly, a lot of the CBSA systems include information related to the passage of travellers. So that type of information does stay in our systems, yes, and it has for a long time even before the PIK system was here," he said. 

The kiosks are already in use at four other airports besides Halifax's, and they will be rolled out at more airports across Canada through 2018. The CBSA's goal is to fully eliminate the use of the paper customs declarations.