Your privacy at airports and borders

Travellers at Canadian airports and U.S. border crossings are subject to close scrutiny and several layers of security measures.  Airports, sea ports, international waterways and land border crossings are significantly different from other public places in Canada because the expectation of privacy is reduced. Does that mean people lose all right to privacy?  No.

This fact sheet provides information about what to expect and where you can turn if you feel your privacy rights have been violated.

September 2016

Airport Security Screening

Physical Searches

A physical search can be required to resolve screening equipment alarms, or if a passenger is selected for additional screening.  It may also be needed if an individual has a medical condition (e.g., pacemaker) that makes a scanner or x-ray dangerous.

  • Physical searches take place either in the screening line or a private room. Passengers may request a private search – in which case a room or curtained-off area must be used.
  • When conducted in private, two screening officers of the same gender as the passenger must be present. You may request that screening officers wear gloves.
  • Where millimetre-wave full-body scanners are used, passengers facing additional screening may select a physical search or scanner.

Millimetre-wave Full Body Scanners

Full body scanners can detect items such as ceramic weapons, liquids, plastic explosives or other concealed objects that do not show up with standard metal detectors.

When first introduced in Canada, full body scanners raised significant privacy concerns due to the detailed images produced of passengers’ bodies. In an effort to address concerns, software is now used to generate “stick figures” rather than a detailed body outline.

  • Passengers selected for additional screening can choose either inspection by the scanner (where available) or a physical “pat down.”
  • Your name, boarding pass number and passport information are not associated with the generic stick figure generated by the full body scanner.
  • Images are examined and then immediately deleted.

If you have concerns

Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) has a toll-free, 24-hour number (1-888-294-2202) to answer questions or take complaints stemming from screening procedures or 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

Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record Program

Under the Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record Program, the Canada Border Services Agency seeks to identify travellers who may pose a security risk – before they arrive in Canada.

Information on all individuals travelling to Canada, regardless of carrier or citizenship, is reviewed. Data collected and reviewed includes: 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 people may be sent for further screening.

If you have concerns

Travellers have a right to request a copy of their personal Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record data, and may ask that a notation be included if any of the information is incorrect.  The Canada Border Services Agency has an Admissibility Branch, which operates independently and deals with disputes that develop over border services matters.

Entry/Exit System

The Entry/Exit Initiative provides the Canada Border Services Agency with information about individuals who have left Canada.  The Canada Border Services Agency and U.S. Department of Homeland Security systematically exchange data on people travelling between the two countries at major land crossings.    

Integrated Customs Enforcement System

Through the Integrated Customs Enforcement System program, the Canada Border Services Agency collects information on travellers crossing the Canada-U.S. border via 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 other Canada Border Services Agency data.

Passage histories are analysed to pinpoint people with unusual or suspicious travel patterns. These people may face closer scrutiny by customs officials and law enforcement agents.

Customs Searches

At border controls, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers have widespread powers to stop and search people, and examine their baggage and other possessions including devices such as laptops and smartphones. Under Canada’s Customs Act, these activities may be conducted without a warrant.

Canadian courts have generally recognized that people have reduced expectations of privacy at border points. In this context, privacy and other Charter rights continue to apply but are limited by state imperatives of national sovereignty, immigration control, taxation and public safety and security. To our knowledge, the Canadian courts have not yet ruled on whether a border officer can compel a person to turn over their password so that their electronic device may be searched at a border crossing.

While the law is unsettled, CBSA policy states that examinations of personal devices should not be conducted as a matter of routine; such searches may be conducted only if there are grounds or indications that “evidence of contraventions may be found on the digital device or media.”

If your laptop or mobile device is searched, it should be searched in line with this policy and you will likely be asked to provide your password. According to the policy, officers may only examine what is stored within a device, which includes, for example, photos, files, downloaded e-mails and other media. Officers are advised to disable wireless and internet connectivity, limiting access to any data stored external to the device, for instance, on social media or in a cloud. If you refuse to provide your password, your device may be held for further inspection.

If you have concerns or questions

The Canada Border Services Agency’s Recourse Directorate can review issues related to any decision or search undertaken by the agency’s officials.  As well, the Agency has an online feedback and complaint form.

Individuals who are concerned about searches at the border may also file a complaint with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Note that the OPC is currently investigating the issue of electronic device searches at the border.

Canada’s No-fly List

The goal of Canada’s no-fly initiative, known as the Passenger Protect Program, is to prevent people from boarding airplanes in Canada who are believed to pose a threat to transportation security or are travelling abroad to commit certain terrorism offences.

Canadian air carriers are required to match the names of all ticket holders against a watch list. If a person’s name matches one on the list, the airline must contact Transport Canada.

If the person is determined to be the individual on the list, that person will be stopped from boarding the airplane.

  • The watch list – or Specified Persons list – contains the name, gender and birth date of any person the government deems a threat to safety or likely to engage in terrorism offences abroad.

If you have concerns

Public Safety Canada administers the Passenger Protect Program. If you have been denied the right to board an aircraft and believe you have been placed on the watch list in error, you can apply to the Passenger Protect Recourse Office to have your case reviewed.

A review may establish that you are a different person than the individual listed as a threat.  It could also re-examine the basis and validity of the decision to add you to the list of individuals who a threat to transportation security.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Federal Court of Canada are other avenues for redress for people denied boarding.

For further information and help

Concerns related to government security programs

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 Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP ) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (Security Intelligence Review Committee).

Concerns related to airlines

If you are concerned about the potentially inappropriate collection or handling of your personal information by an airline or other business, you should start by contacting the organization directly and trying to have your issue resolved. Privacy concerns can be raised with the person responsible for privacy issues within the organization, often called the Chief Privacy Officer.

Complaints to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada

If you are not satisfied with the response of a federal government department or agency or a private sector organization regarding a privacy concern, 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, he may take an unresolved complaint to Federal Court to obtain an order to respect your privacy rights which may have been violated.

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