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Privacy needs respect and protection within any perimeter

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The tragedy of September 11th shook our sense of collective security to its core. With that, security measures were tightened, constricting the movement of travellers and trade across the Canada-US border.

As its decade anniversary approaches, discussions are underway on a Canada-US perimeter agreement to ensure security and ease trade.

It remains to be seen how any plan to achieve these goals will incorporate respect for privacy. Given nearly two-thirds of Canadians indentify privacy protection as one of the next decade’s most important issues, this question is important. 

There’s no denying that the last decade has seen security initiatives resulting in an unprecedented amount of travellers’ personal information being shared to cross the border. 

A decade ago, we needed to show customs agents a birth certificate and photo ID.  Today, our passports are scanned, our image is captured by surveillance cameras; we are checked against watch lists and police records; our laptop or smart-phone may be searched; and the agent may even Google us to see what pops up. 

Understandably, due to the tragedy of ten years ago, governments have sought stronger security. But, as the pursuit of greater security continues, it doesn’t have to come at privacy’s expense.

At the same time, privacy is not an unconditional entitlement and there may be cases when its protections must give way to meet a greater good.

However, anytime we’re considering adopting a security measure which lessens privacy, we should ask: 

  • Is it absolutely necessary to achieve the desired end?
  • Is it proportionate to the perceived threat?
  • Will it be effective in addressing it?; and
  • Is there a less invasive alternative that could achieve the same outcome?

And just as stronger security needn’t weaken privacy, any agreement Canada enters into should neither reduce Canadians' privacy rights, nor curtail Canada's control over the protection of its citizens’ personal information.

On these notes, I take some comfort in the February Declaration which started the process. It pledged the countries to “work together to promote the principles of human rights, privacy, and civil liberties as essential to the rule of law and effective management of our perimeter.”  And just recently, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird addressed the discussions, saying 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.”

Given my role, I want to see those words ring true.  Therefore, following an earlier submission made to the Beyond the Border Working Group, I offer the following essential conditions that any future agreement should meet in order to truly and properly “promote” and “respect” our privacy rights.

1)  Canadians have a unique perspective on privacy, formalized by federal laws protecting personal information.

Their respect should be reflected in any agreement.

Clear terms and fixed agreements must be established for sharing Canadians’ personal information with the US.

Furthermore, its use and disclosure should fall under Canadian standards of protection and due process.

2)  Real privacy oversight, due process and legal redress are vital.  

A good example to consider is the European Union model for managing its ‘perimeter.’  This model shares information on visitors’ exit and entry with member states under carefully structured agreements and conditions, collects photographs; and provides very limited access to domestic law enforcement agencies. 

For example, access can be granted for purposes such as: finding missing persons; recovering stolen luggage; or providing information on prior crimes committed within member states.

Similarly, the Canada-US security perimeter should restrict links to agencies’ information resources on the basis of demonstrated security need.  Moreover, an accessible and transparent appeal process must be put in place to remedy errors or abuse.

3)  The collection and sharing of any biometric data (like fingerprints or retinal scans) should be as minimal as possible and, wherever practical, used only for verification rather than identification 

Biometrics, properly used, can enhance privacy by confirming identity and avoiding mistakes.  

However, when collected indiscriminately and stored in networked databases, we draw ever closer to the bleak reality of a “surveillance society;” which I believe citizens on each side of the border want to avoid. 

Consequently, access to such data should be permitted only for very specific and minimal purposes, and certainly not connected to other agency databases.

I make these suggestions bearing in mind that Canadians and Americans have lost a lot over the last decade.

The list includes thousands of innocent people sadly gone forever, save for their loved ones’ memories; and a previously unparalleled sense of continental safety and inviolability, likely to never return.

Our leaders should avoid starting the next decade by adding any unjustifiable weakening of our privacy to this list.


This article originally appeared on on September 8, 2011.

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