Politics

Canada still studying U.S., U.K. bans on in-flight electronics

Canadian security experts are waiting to see whether Canada goes along with the U.S. and U.K. and bars certain airline passengers from carrying any electronic device larger than a smartphone in their carry-on luggage.

Delay on heightened air security measures puzzles security experts

Canada is still studying a ban on computers larger than a smartphone which apply to some flights from some destinations heading towards the U.S. and the U.K. (Chris Ison/Associated Press)

Canadian security experts are puzzled about why the federal government has yet to announce whether it will follow the United States and United Kingdom in banning most electronic devices from the cabin on certain international flights.

Washington moved last week to bar passengers arriving from eight countries from bringing anything larger than a mobile phone aboard a plane in their carry-on luggage. The ban applies to direct flights from 10 airports in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Soon after the U.S. announced its move, Britain announced similar measures and banned most electronics on flights originating in six countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Canada and other countries, however, have so far declined to follow suit.

Canada's Transport Minister Marc Garneau said last week the federal government was evaluating intelligence provided by the U.S. The government, however, has still made no decision on whether to impose its own ban.

Minister of Transport Marc Garneau said his department was evaluating U.S. intelligence on the electronics ban. There's still no decision on whether it will apply to Canada-bound flights. (Todd Korol/Canadian Press)

Wesley Wark, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in security and terrorism, says it all makes for a very unusual situation.

"It makes you kind of scratch your head," said Wark.

"Generally, in these kinds of cases, because of the very complex and interconnected nature of global air travel, if one or more countries believes there's some new serious threat, they would try to ensure that there is a fairly co-ordinated implementation of security measures. Otherwise, the scheme doesn't make a whole lot of sense." 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security cited "evaluated intelligence" for its ban, saying terrorist groups have been aggressively pursuing ways of concealing explosives inside "various consumer items."

Wark says he's glad Canada did not simply impose its own ban in a knee-jerk response. But he says the fact the federal government is still evaluating the information does raise questions.

'Less than compelling' information?

"It suggests that there may be something that is less than compelling about the information that's available from allies to Canada," he said.

Wark won't speculate about whether Canada might be wary of intelligence coming from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. But he does think the "lack of co-ordination and incompetence" the administration has shown on other files could be affecting the way the electronics ban is being put in place.

"Some of the awkwardness and oddness of the rollout of this could be a reflection just of an ongoing turmoil within the United States, where things are just not moving and running very smoothly," Wark said.   

Phil Gurski, a former analyst with CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, says questions about the Trump administration may be in the back of people's minds when they weigh U.S. intelligence, but he doubts they are "the main driver" in this case. That said, he wonders what questions Canadian authorities are asking their U.S. counterparts.

'This is not a generic threat'

"The airports listed and the devices that have been put on that list for not carrying into the cabin are very specific. This is not a generic threat," Gurski said.

"We want to make sure it's the best intelligence possible, the best analysis possible. And that's probably where Canada is right now."

A spokesperson for Garneau said in an e-mail the electronics ban continues to be studied by Canadian authorities.

"It is a very complicated issue that is being taken very seriously by our government," said Marc Roy, Garneau's director of communications, without any further detail.

Transport Canada says there are 35 direct flights per week between Canada and the UAE, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, six of the countries affected by the U.S. and U.K. bans.

It says there are no flights from Lebanon or Tunisia, two other countries mentioned.

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