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Databases: We’ll show you ours if you show us yours

The Afghan detainee file has been taking up a lot of our time lately, but the BCCLA national security team hasn’t dropped the ball on other issues.

One area we’ve been watching is transnational data sharing, especially between Canada and the United States. Canada and the U.S. have been sharing police records since the Reagan era, and the relationship has only become cozier since 2001. An article in the USA Today illustrates just how close that relationship has become:

Thousands of times each day, Canadian authorities tap into sensitive U.S. government databases to check the criminal histories of U.S. citizens who are crossing the border or have been entangled in the Canadian criminal justice system, FBI records show.

During the Winter Olympics, Canadian authorities ran nearly 10,000 criminal history checks per day, more inquiries than some U.S. states perform each day, FBI records show.

Even more Canadian citizens receive similar scrutiny by U.S. officials with access to Canadian records, according to RCMP records. Since January, Canada has conducted 400,000 queries and the U.S., 1.4 million.

Systems used that widely have a gross potential for abuse. We wouldn’t just trust another nation to troll through our most sensitive records, would we? There must be some oversight built into the system, right? Wrong:

The U.S. has no independent authority to audit Canada’s use, Weise says, and Canada has no authority to police U.S. queries of its system. Weise and RCMP Sgt. Greg Cox say the two countries conduct regular internal audits of their own use.

Well, if it’s widely used and there’s absolutely no accountability, we shouldn’t be worried if we’ve nothing to hide, right? Wrong again:

Canada’s access to such detailed — and possibly outdated — personal histories of U.S. citizens, including decades-old misdemeanors, can result in wrongful detention, interrogation and foreign travel bans.

About half of the arrest records in the system have not been updated to reflect convictions, dismissals or acquittals, Weise said, adding that local law enforcement agencies are responsible for giving the FBI updated information.

So to sum up: Border agents in Canada and the United States have unlimited access to the other country’s criminal databases. There are no checks and balances to ensure that U.S. use of the Canadian system is appropriate, and vice versa. Even if our border guards are using their database access appropriately, the information in the database is wildly inaccurate and out of date, often resulting in wrongful detention, embarrassing interrogations and searches, or even travel bans.

Despite these enormous problems, we’re still rushing to share even more information between our nations. This week, BCCLA Policy Director Micheal Vonn is off to Ottawa to appear at a parliamentary committee meeting discussing the Passenger Protect Program and plans to bring the U.S. No-Fly List to Canada. We’ll have more on that when she reports back.