Border agency told to halt eavesdropping on travellers

Canada's public safety minister has ordered the Canada Border Services Agency to halt audio monitoring of travellers until a privacy assessment can be completed.

Move follows concerns from privacy commissioner over CBSA monitoring plan

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, right, watches a CBSA demonstration of drug-detecting technology at Pearson airport in Toronto last summer. Toews has ordered a halt to audio monitoring of travellers until a privacy assessment can be conducted following concerns from the privacy commissioner's office. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

Canada's public safety minister has ordered the Canada Border Services Agency to halt audio monitoring of travellers until a privacy assessment can be completed.

The announcement follows concerns from the federal privacy commissioner's office about reports that the CBSA had installed cameras and microphones at the Macdonald-Cartier airport in Ottawa to watch and eavesdrop on travellers.

On Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews ordered a temporary stop to the audio monitoring

Toews told reporters on Parliament Hill before question period he shares Canadians' concerns about the recording of private conversations, even if they occur in a restricted area such as an airport. Toews said the CBSA proposal he'd seen referred to conversations with a CBSA officer, not a "private conversation" between two travellers.

"But I've indicated to CBSA that I don't want to see any of those audio recordings take place until there has been a privacy impact assessment and the privacy commissioner has in fact made recommendations," Toews said.

"I have heard that some recordings were made, and I have indicated to them that that is not to occur without a privacy assessment being made and that any recordings that have been made will be destroyed," Toews said.

CBC News has learned a conversation was recorded at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport and it was between a border services agent and a passenger. The recording has since been deleted.

Later, in question period, Toews told the MPs, "I'm not aware of any private conversations having been recorded by this measure, but what I can say is it is important for agencies tasked with protecting Canadians to have the right tools to catch smugglers and keep Canadians safe."

"It is equally important that these tools not infringe on individuals' privacy in a way that is unnecessary to ensure security. And again I would stress, even if these audio recordings were to occur in a restricted area of an airport, I would still want an assessment by the privacy commissioner."

Privacy concerns raised

Assistant privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier said Monday she was surprised to see recent reports of the monitoring measures.

"We are so much in the dark of the scope and details of the measures that I couldn't even comment on it," she said.

However, Bernier said that according to Treasury Board policy, if a department wants to implement a measure that affects privacy, it must do an assessment on how privacy will be affected.


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"We never received a privacy impact assessment, and that is key," Bernier said Monday. "That is what the process should be. I am told they [CBSA] are working on a privacy impact assessment. We will review it and make our recommendations as we always do."

Details of the new monitoring equipment are vague.

In an email to CBC News Monday, CBSA spokesman Luc Nadon said audio-visual "monitoring and recording technology has been in use for many years," but did not say what border crossings were using the technology or exactly how long it has been in use.

Nadon went on to say that CBSA is not undertaking a "national installation of new equipment."

Nadon said new HD equipment would be added "as a part of a natural lifecycle replacement and usually [coincides] with scheduled facilities renovations." He would not confirm the location or timing of the upgrades but said Canadians would be given notice and basic signs would be posted where monitoring equipment was in use.

CBSA said most recordings are deleted after 30 days. Recordings of incidents that may require further action on the part of CBSA, such as a traveller complaint or incidents that are expected to result in court action, are kept for a minimum of two years.