Fact Sheets

Checking In
Your privacy rights at airports and border crossings

If you’ve travelled through a Canadian airport or U.S. border crossing in the past few years, you will have experienced the growing emphasis on security screening. The reality is that airports (and, to a lesser extent, sea ports and land border crossings) are different from most other public spaces in Canada. On the street, you would be understandably upset if police randomly demanded to examine your identification or subject you to searches.

Travellers today are subject to greater scrutiny than ever before. At airports, security measures are presented as a trade-off for safer skies.

But does that mean you have to check in your privacy rights with your luggage? Certainly not.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has been working for many years to ensure that security measures at airports and border crossings do not unduly infringe on the privacy of Canadians.

All federal government organizations responsible for security are subject to Canada’s Privacy Act, which contains important safeguards for your personal information. The law also sets out mechanisms through which you can seek to have your privacy rights enforced.

We have prepared this fact sheet to explain the law, to describe the impact of security measures on your personal information and privacy rights, and to let you know where you can turn if you feel your rights have been violated.

Airport Security Screening

Travellers are generally accustomed to passing through metal detectors and sending their jackets, shoes and carry-on items through X-ray machines. Such security measures are the responsibility of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA). CASTA includes detailed information on airport security screening procedures on their website.

Physical Searches

A physical search is required to resolve screening equipment alarms, when a passenger is randomly selected for additional screening or if a passenger must bypass the walk through metal detector due to a medical condition (e.g., pacemaker). The Screening Officer will also perform a visual search under accessories such as belts or scarves. The Screening Officer may also ‘pat down’ the passenger to ensure that the individual is not concealing anything under his or her clothing. More information on physical searches is available from CATSA’s website.

What you should know:

  • Physical searches can be conducted at the screening line or in a private search room.
  • Passengers may ask that the ‘pat-down’ be conducted in a private search room. CATSA is obliged to provide a room or curtained-off area for this purpose.
    • When conducted in a private search room, two Screening Officers of the same gender as the passenger must be present. One will conduct the search and the other serves as a witness.
  • If you or your belongings are selected for additional screening, you may request that the Screening Officers wear gloves.
  • Where millimetre-wave full-body scanners are available (see description below), passengers who have been randomly selected for additional screening may select to go through the scanner.
  • In some cases, multiple additional screening methods could be required, for example, a physical search may be conducted following an alarm from the millimetre-wave scanner.

Redress:

  • CATSA operates a toll-free number, 24 hours a day (1-888-294-2202) to process questions or complaints stemming from screening procedures or individuals’ dealings with Screening Officers. Travellers may also report concerns on the CATSA website.
  • Travellers with complaints about a search of personal items or devices may contact CATSA’s Claims Management Unit.

Explosive Trace Detection

CATSA may use Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) technology at security checkpoints to test for explosives as part of its layered approach to additional screening. 

What you should know:

  • ETD is used on a random basis at the security checkpoint and in the screening lines.
  • Screening Officers may swab your hands, the clothing by your waist, your socks, shoes or your carry-on baggage and then use ETD technology to test for explosives.
  • The tests are often used on electronic devices, such as laptops and phones.

Redress:

  • CATSA operates a toll-free number, 24 hours a day (1-888-294-2202) to process questions or complaints stemming from screening procedures or individuals’ dealings with Screening Officers. Travellers may also report concerns on the CATSA website.
  • Travellers with complaints about a search of personal items or devices may contact CATSA’s Claims Management Unit.

Millimetre-wave Full Body Scanners

Full-Body Scanners (FBS) have been used in Canadian airports since 2010. When first introduced, FBS was controversial and generated a number of privacy-related concerns due to the detailed images that it produced of passengers’ bodies. In an effort to address these privacy concerns,1 CATSA implemented Automated Target Recognition (ATR) software on its FBS units across Canada in April 2013. The new software produces computer generated “stick figures” rather than an outline of the passenger’s body. CATSA’s website has additional information. 

The Full Body Scanner (FBS) uses Radio Frequency (RF) energy to reveal objects, including weapons and explosives that could be concealed under clothing. The FBS now uses software that detects areas on the passenger’s body requiring additional search, which are displayed at the checkpoint on a generic “stick” figure. The FBS can detect items such as ceramic weapons, liquids, plastic explosives or other concealed objects that do not show up with standard metal detectors.

What you should know:

  • Passengers selected for additional screening, can choose to pass through the FBS (where available) or to undergo a physical search (see previous section.)
  • No personal information, such as the passenger’s name, boarding pass number or passport information is associated with the generic “stick” figure generated by the FBS.
  • Generic “stick” figure images are examined for concealed threats and immediately deleted. They are not recorded or stored for future use.

Redress:

  • CATSA operates a toll-free number, 24 hours a day (1-888-294-2202) to process questions or complaints stemming from screening procedures or individuals’ dealings with screening officers. Travellers may also report concerns on the CATSA website.
  • Travellers with complaints about a search of personal items or devices may contact CATSA’s Claims Management Unit.

Collection of Traveller Data

The Government of Canada collects the personal information of travellers for various law enforcement and security initiatives.

Entry/Exit System – Phase II

The Entry/Exit Initiative enables the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to receive information about individuals who have left Canada and entered the U.S. through a land crossing. Previously, the would not have known when or where individuals have left Canada. Now, the CBSA and US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will systematically exchange biographic data on certain individuals as they cross between the U.S. and Canada at all major land border crossings. The concept behind Entry/Exit is that entry to one country will serve as a record of exit from the other. The information will be exchanged in nearly real-time and will be stored in CBSA’s Passage History database.

Under Phase II of the Entry/Exit Initiative, the systematic exchange of information is limited to the following individuals:

  1. third-country nationals (those who are neither citizens of Canada nor of the U.S.);
  2. permanent residents of Canada (who are not U.S. citizens); and
  3. lawful permanent residents of the U.S. (who are not Canadian citizens).

By June 30, 2014, the Entry/Exit Initiative is projected to expand to include the exchange of data on all travellers, including Canadian citizens, and will expand to encompass air travel as well.2

What you should know:

  • The biographic entry data exchanged under Phase II includes all traveller information that is currently already being collected at ports of entry, including: first name, last name, middle name, date of birth, nationality, gender, document type, document number, work location code / U.S. port of entry codes, date of entry, time of entry, and document country of issuance.
  • In addition to that biographic data, the CBSA and DHS will now also collect and exchange information about the date of entry, the time of entry and the port through which the individual has entered. For the receiving country, this is the information about the traveller that is not already known.
  • During Phase II the CBSA has indicated it will use the biographic entry data received from the U.S. to administer and enforce the immigration laws of Canada, including activities such as:
    • identifying persons subject to a removal or departure order who may have departed the country, which will facilitate immigration enforcement actions and investigations;
    • enhancing the travel history to assist in determining whether individuals continue to meet permanent residency obligations and/or meet eligibility requirements to apply for citizenship.

For more information:

Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record Program

Under the Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record (API/PNR) Program, the CBSA seeks to identify travellers who may pose a security risk – before they arrive in Canada. The CBSA reviews information on all individuals travelling to Canada, regardless of carrier or citizenship.

This is done by collecting personal information on all individuals arriving in Canada, including, but not limited to: name, date of birth, gender, citizenship, travel document data, itinerary, address, ticket payment information, frequent flyer information, baggage details and contact telephone numbers.

Names may be checked against watch lists, and certain individuals may be sent for further screening.

What you should know:

The CBSA is responsible for national security and public safety at border crossings, while also facilitating the free flow of people and goods. For information about the agency’s programs, visit its website: www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca.

  • The CBSA collects advance passenger information and passenger name records (API/PNR) data directly from the reservation systems of commercial carriers.
  • This information is used in conjunction with other CBSA databanks to identify people who may be subject to closer questioning or examination on arrival in Canada, on the grounds that they could be contravening Canadian law or pose a threat to security.
  • The CBSA stores this information in its Passenger Information System (PAXIS), and may share it with other agencies (including foreign authorities) for specified purposes related to ensuring the safety and security of Canadians, certain judicial proceedings, or as otherwise required by Canadian law.
  • API/PNR data is retained for three-and-a-half years, subject to specific restrictions on how the information can be used and shared.

Redress:

Integrated Customs Enforcement System

Through the Integrated Customs Enforcement System (ICES) program, the CBSA has, since 2004, been collecting information on travellers crossing the Canada-U.S. border. The program is in place at all major airports, selected highway crossings and cruise ship facilities.

Personal information – name, date of birth, citizenship, address, mode of travel, purpose of travel and value of goods purchased abroad – is collected from customs declaration forms and matched with data from other CBSA sources to form a passage history.

Computers analyse passage histories to pinpoint people who have unusual or suspicious travel patterns. These individuals may be earmarked for closer scrutiny by customs officials and law enforcement agents.

What you should know:

  • The Integrated Customs Enforcement System (ICES) is an automated system used by frontline customs inspectors, intelligence and investigations staff to collect personal information related to cross-border travel.
  • ICES also contains records on arrests, seizures and customs investigations.
  • Using ICES, CBSA officers are able to create, access, maintain and issue “lookouts.” A lookout flags or identifies particular travellers or vehicles on the basis of risk indicators or other available intelligence.
  • Some travellers may be pulled over for secondary inspections or searches. In that case, all related information is also entered into the ICES database, including the reason for the additional screening; the results of the search; interview notes; identity information such as name, age, address, citizenship, licence and passport numbers; details of any CBSA actions taken (for example, if the individual was searched, arrested or detained), and the names of travel companions.
  • Personal information collected under this program is retained for six years.

Customs Searches

Under Canada’s Customs Act, CBSA officers have widespread powers to stop and search individuals, their baggage and other possessions and devices at any Canadian port of entry, be this a land border crossing, air terminal or sea port. When such searches have been challenged in court, judges have typically recognized that people should have reduced expectations of privacy at border points. In this special context, privacy and other Charter rights are limited by factors such as sovereignty, immigration control, taxation and security.

What you should know:

  • CBSA officers are authorized to conduct searches of individuals entering Canada, including their baggage, parcels or devices such as laptops, BlackBerrys or cellphones. These searches may be conducted without a warrant.
  • In addition, officers may examine devices for photos, files, contacts and other media, in much the same way customs officials have broad powers to open, inspect and seize mailed packages being delivered into Canada.

Redress:

Canada’s No-fly List

The goal of Canada’s no-fly initiative, known as the Passenger Protect Program, is to prevent people who are believed to pose an immediate threat to air safety from boarding airplanes in Canada. Under the program, Canadian air carriers are required to match the names of all ticket holders against a watch list, known as the Specified Persons List. The list is compiled and administered by Transport Canada, based on advice from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and input from shared global intelligence.

What you should know:

Transport Canada, which sets policies and regulations on air safety, airline personnel and airport policy, also administers the Passenger Protect Program. For information about Transport Canada programs, visit its website: www.tc.gc.ca.

  • If a person’s name matches one on the list, the airline representative must contact Transport Canada.
  • If that person is determined to be the individual on the list, then he or she is barred from boarding the aircraft.
  • The Specified Persons list contains the name, gender and birth date of any person the government deems too dangerous to fly.

Redress:

  • If you have been denied the right to board an aircraft and you believe you have been placed on the Specified Persons List in error, you can apply to Transport Canada’s Office of Reconsideration to have your case reviewed.
  • Applicants for review must submit certified true copies of identity documents (such as birth certificates, passports or citizenship cards) along with certification from certain acceptable officials, including judges, lawyers, mayors or police officers.
  • A review can be either to establish that the traveller is a different person than a known threat listed on the Specified Persons List, or to re-examine the basis and validity of an individual being listed as a threat to aviation security.
  • The Office of Reconsideration aims to complete each review within 30 days.
  • The Office also stipulates the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Federal Court of Canada as avenues for redress for people denied boarding.

Your Privacy Rights

As a Canadian traveller, your privacy rights kick in from the moment you book a flight – online or through a travel agency – and continue on through the airport lobby and into the pre-boarding area. Those rights are protected by two federal laws.

The Privacy Act applies to government departments and agencies, including Transport Canada, Citizen and Immigration Canada, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, the Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP.

Private enterprises, meanwhile, are governed by the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. PIPEDA applies to airlines, travel agencies and the many other commercial organizations that do business at airports, from duty-free stores and magazine shops to eateries and concessions.

Together, these two laws provide important safeguards for your privacy. In particular, commercial organizations and government agencies are obliged to limit the collection and use of your personal information, ensure it is accurate, protect it from unauthorized disclosure, minimize authorized disclosure, and provide access and correction measures for individuals. This is critically important because air security programs depend on the collection and analysis of large amounts of personal information. Any mistake can have grave consequences, including stranding travellers at airports or branding them as terrorists.

If you have concerns

If you think your personal information has been collected, used or disclosed improperly by a government security program, you can turn to one of the redress mechanisms described in this fact sheet. There are also dedicated review bodies for complaints against the RCMP (the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP) and CSIS (Security Intelligence Review Committee) if Canadian travellers have concerns about their treatment or experiences. While currently without independent review bodies, the other agencies involved in aviation security do have complaint mechanisms, accessible at these links for CATSA and CBSA respectively.

If you are concerned about the potentially inappropriate collection or handling of your personal information by an airline or other commercial enterprise, you should start by contacting the organization directly and trying to have your issue resolved. If you are unsatisfied with the response you get from the government or private organization, you can file a complaint with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. The Commissioner has the power to investigate complaints, search for resolutions satisfactory to both parties, and make findings and recommendations. In the case of commercial organizations, she may take an unresolved complaint to Federal Court to obtain an order to respect your privacy rights which may have been violated.

For more information, please contact our Office

By mail:

Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
30 Victoria Street
Gatineau, Quebec
K1A 1H3

By phone (toll free):

1-800-282-1376

February 2010 (Revised June 2014)


1 See CATSA’s FBS PIA Update.

2 See the Entry Exit Initiative – Phase II Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) Executive Summary.