Canada-U.S. border talks raise privacy concern

Privacy and information sharing are a concern for Canadians who wrote to the government about border talks with the U.S., according to a report released by Foreign Affairs Monday.
Privacy and information sharing are a concern for Canadians who wrote to the government about border talks with the U.S., according to a report released by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Privacy and information sharing are a concern for Canadians who wrote to the government about border talks with the U.S., according to a report released by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird Monday.

Canada and the U.S. are in negotiations over ways to integrate border security and ease trade access, though many of the details aren’t public yet.

Two reports released Monday summarize public consultations on the perimeter security talks. One is on implementing the agreement and the other on aligning regulations between the two countries.

Business and trade groups were concerned about streamlining and speeding up approval for goods and wanted to align screening procedures for travellers between the two countries, the perimeter agreement report says They also want expanded pre-clearance programs.

Individual Canadians were more concerned about maintaining privacy rights. The report says they voiced concerns about information sharing with the U.S. government.

The report notes the government got detailed submissions from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Canada's privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, on information sharing and integrated law enforcement with the U.S.

Baird says Canadian sovereignty cannot and will not be compromised in the talks.

"These ideas and concerns have been front and centre in our thinking as we are pursuing talks with our American counterparts," he said.

"If we want to ensure cross-border law enforcement activities and other programs, they have to respect the legal and the privacy rights of Canadians. That is incredibly important. I think it’s important to all of us across the political spectrum."

Industry pushing information sharing

The report says airline, airport and tourism industry groups are pushing the government to share passenger information with U.S. authorities, including merging no-fly lists and introducing a joint visa entry-exit system.

Under a joint entry-exit system, Canada's entry data would serve as the United States' exit system, and vice versa, the report notes. If integrated entry-exit systems were developed, both countries would not only have a record of when individuals entered, but when they left.

Stoddart noted in her submission that a joint system would involve sharing Canadians' personal information with the U.S.

"The privacy commissioner suggested that instituting an entry-exit program would represent a major shift from the current Canada-U.S. data-sharing regime," said the report.

"The privacy commissioner recommended that information shared be limited to specific alerts, incidents and lookouts. Visitors to Canada and the United States should also be informed of the program goals and the extent of the collection, use and sharing of their personal information."

NDP associate border critic Brian Masse said he understands why industry groups would propose the information sharing, but says Parliament should examine any potential proposals.

"It might have to be a special committee because it overlaps industry and all kinds of different departments ... [including] public safety," he said.

"They don't really outline what's going to happen next and by whom."

"You're looking at changing several Canadian laws here and civil liberties, and they seem to throw that out the window," Masse said, noting Stoddart should be involved in the process.

Speaking to host Evan Solomon on CBC's Power & Politics, Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai says the government will seek input from Parliament before signing the agreement.

"At the end of the day we will decide with more input, including parliamentary input, as to how this will work," said Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs.

The government got input from more than 1,000 Canadians and almost 200 submissions from groups and organizations, including business groups, provinces and territories, municipalities, organized labour, civil society groups, academics and think tanks, Baird said. Both sets of consultations were conducted in the spring and summer of 2011.

Last talks focused on privacy

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano met with Public Safety Minister Vic Toews earlier this month to discuss the agreement.

The talks focused in part on privacy issues and the role each country's privacy commissioners would play in making sure they share information in an appropriate way, Toews said at the time.

The meeting also looked at the next generation of joint operations, Napolitano said, pointing to the example of putting law enforcement officials on each other's ships.

"Obviously these are areas that require a bit of fleshing out, but are evidence of our mutual intent that this border not be thickened, but that it be made more efficient," she said.

They also announced an upcoming meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama this fall. No specific date was announced.

The talks are based on a joint declaration by Harper and Obama last February. They said the talks would look at addressing security threats early, making trade easier, integrating cross-border law enforcement, and improving critical infrastructure and cyber-security.

Increased security over the past 10 years has slowed traffic crossing between the two countries, referred to as a thickening of the border.

Toews and Napolitano last met in Washington, D.C., in June.