'A really bad idea': Border Services looking at rebooting controversial reality TV show

The Canada Border Services Agency is looking at getting back into the reality TV show game, just two years after the federal privacy commissioner said the agency's show broke the law.

Axed TV show 'continues to be an important educational tool,' says CBSA

Members of the Canadian Border Services Agency gather at the border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Border Security: Canada's Front Line was billed as a show 'that will make you think twice the next time you consider hiding anything in your luggage.' (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The Canada Border Services Agency is looking at getting back into the reality TV show game, just two years after the federal privacy commissioner said the agency's show Border Security: Canada's Front Line broke the law.

The National Geographic Channel series showed audiences unscripted encounters between border officers and the public. A normal episode would involve officers questioning and searching people at airports and land crossings  — sometimes with their faces blurred, sometimes not.

In 2016, the privacy commissioner found the agency violated the rights of a migrant worker who was filmed during a construction site raid in Vancouver. That led the agency to end its involvement with the series.

But the show isn't completely dead yet. A spokesperson for the CBSA confirmed the "agency is exploring the possibility of renewing the series."

"Any future projects would need to respect travellers' privacy rights," said CBSA spokesperson Patrizia Giolti in an email to CBC News.

"While the series came to an end in 2015, it was, and continues to be, an important educational tool."

According to a heavily redacted briefing note obtained under access to information law from the CBSA president to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, the agency has been mulling the idea of stepping back into the reality TV arena since late 2017.

Earlier this year, the agency paid the research firm EKOS to assess Canadians' views of its services and border management. That report noted that many Canadians got their information about CBSA's work from the axed show.

"This series helped inform the travelling public of the requirement to declare all goods, and other legislation governing the border and import process, which are still in place today," said Giolti.

Civil liberties group concerned

Even the thought of bringing back Border Security: Canada's Front Line is "deeply troubling," said Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

His group helped to spearhead the complaint from Oscar Mata Duran that ultimately led to the privacy commissioner's report. Mata Duran said that, during a raid at his worksite, he was presented with a consent form that he did not read, but signed out of confusion and fear.

"They should give up their Hollywood dream and focus on doing their job," Paterson said.

"It remains a really bad idea."

In his 2016 report, the privacy commissioner found that many of those filmed for the show — who were often individuals from countries with legal systems different from Canada's — weren't providing meaningful consent to TV crews.

"In large part due to the context in which filming occurs, individuals are not providing full and informed consent to the disclosure of their personal information, as would be required by the act," noted the report.

"Our office questioned whether such consent is given freely, and whether individuals who are the subject of an interaction with the CBSA are in the best frame of mind to provide valid consent."

Along with the consent issue, Paterson said his group is worried about the impact TV cameras have on the way officers do their job.

"They were being filmed for entertainment issues in the conduct of their work," he said.

"In part of their mind, do they think they need to make something look better in order to have a chance of getting it on TV?"

The privacy commissioner's office said it hasn't been given any notice regarding the possible return of the show. 

"Our investigation raised some very serious privacy concerns with respect to CBSA's participation in the television program. We recommended the agency stop its participation and, were it to consider pursuing a television show in the future, that it undertake a privacy impact assessment to help identify privacy risks and propose solutions to eliminate or mitigate these risks to an acceptable level," said spokesperson Tobi Cohen.

"If CBSA is contemplating renewing the Border Security series, we would expect to be consulted in the early stages of planning for any such initiative, and we would expect to receive, review and make recommendations on a PIA implementation."

Other countries have similar programming including Border Security: Australia's Front Line and Border Security: America's Front Line,

About the Author

Catharine Tunney

Reporter

Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked with CBC Radio's The House and CBC Nova Scotia. She can be reached at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca or @cattunneyCBC.

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