On Jun. 30, Canadian border officials plan to enact an extended data-sharing program with the United States in which more information from travellers at the U.S.-Canada border will be recorded and shared with other federal departments. These measures, which will serve as an expansion of the current “Entry-Exit Initiative,” will use the information-sharing procedures already in place for third-country nationals and permanent residents, and apply them to travelling citizens. The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) confirmed the implementation of the program, which will be used to track abuses of various benefit programs and potential security threats.
These measures raise new questions about privacy rights and the extent of federal power in these zones. Both countries’ constitutions contain fundamental privacy clauses, which detail the right of the individual to be free from unwarranted search or seizure. The 4th Amendment of the American Bill of Rights and Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are not entirely straightforward in applicability, however, and have unique implications at the border. In the U.S., a “border search exception” allows officers to conduct non-invasive searches without a warrant or probable cause, as McGill student Pascal Abidor learned in 2011 when his belongings were searched after border officials asked him about his Islamic Studies program and his travels to the Middle East. Citizens and tourists alike have a reduced reasonable expectation of privacy at the border, and, alarmingly, officials are not required to err on the side of caution.
What differentiates this issue from other privacy concerns, however, is the fact that the Entry-Exit Initiative involves the use of information obtained at the border in other government agencies. The CBSA has declined to share which federal officials specifically will receive the information, but commented that the practices will follow stringent policies narrowly curtailed to security purposes. Nevertheless, in an area as contentious as border security, the public deserves more transparency on this issue.
This can be better observed by noting the potential consequences of the expanded program. On the one hand, it could be used to generate more effective security measures and track potential terrorist activities abroad. The CBSA has emphasized that this will be the primary purpose of the program, stating that “access to information will be limited to designated users with an operational requirement”. According to a CBSA briefing note, “information could be disclosed to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to support law enforcement and national security operations. This is of particular interest given the recent media attention on Canadians travelling abroad to engage in terrorist activities.”
The initiative could also be used to track those who may be skimping on social benefit programs by spending long periods of time outside of Canada and thus failing to meet eligibility criteria.
While these are both important causes to address, the measure is also susceptible to potential abuse. Because so many taxation, health services, and citizenship laws are based on residency, some advocates are worried that government officials could use personal information to shape policymaking and legislative initiatives, which would certainly be an exploitation of power.
Because of the far-reaching nature of this program, Canadians deserve to have more explicit information about its implications. This includes knowing exactly what information will be shared with government officials, which departments will have access to the information, how long the data will be kept, and whether personal information will be used for policy purposes beyond straightforward border security. If these details are elucidated, the program has potential to enormously improve national security and make both Canada and the U.S. safer places to live. Until then, however, border officials have some work to do.
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