Anyone who travels across the Canada–U.S. border is aware that in recent years both the Canadian and the U.S. governments have imposed stricter travel requirements. Canada Border Services Agency has instituted several new programs requiring the collection of large amounts of personal information, including NEXUS, CANPASS and the Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record program. Border guards in both countries can search individuals, and seize their luggage and even their electronic devices, without reasonable grounds.

What is the Canada Border Services Agency?

In December 2003, the federal government created the Canada Border Services Agency, which reports to the Minister of Public Safety, to take over and integrate the front-line border management and enforcement activities that three organizations formerly performed:

  1. Customs services, previously part of the then Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA);
  2. Immigration services at ports of entry and most of the intelligence and enforcement programs of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC); and
  3. The Import Inspection at Ports of Entry program of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Canada Border Services and Citizenship and Immigration Canada share responsibility for carrying out the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Citizenship and Immigration is primarily responsible for immigration policy, issuing visas, and pre-removal risk assessment, and Canada Border Services is primarily responsible for enforcing the Act.

Programs of the Canada Border Services Agency – NEXUS, CANPASS, Advance Passenger Information

Canada Border Services has instituted the following programs:

  1. The NEXUS program – a joint venture of Canada Border Services and U.S. Customs enables people to speed their passage across the border at many air, land and marine points of entry by being “pre-screened” and ‘pre-approved’ and using the NEXUS card, either in kiosks at airports, in dedicated lanes at land crossings or reporting in advance by phone at marine ports. To become a “member” of the NEXUS program, you must apply, meet the eligibility criteria and pass a risk assessment in both countries.
  2. The CANPASS program (*) uses biometric information about an individual’s iris to recognize them and enable them to enter Canada from the United States without having to stand in line at Customs and speak to a Customs agent.
  3. The  Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record program – requires airlines landing in Canada to give Border Services the names of all passengers plus birthdates, gender, citizenship or nationality, travel document data, reservation and itinerary including type of ticket, date of travel and number of bags, before landing in Canada.
  4. The Passenger Information System (“PAXIS”) – the Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record data received from air carriers for incoming flights to Canada is put into the Passenger Information System which is used by the National Risk Assessment Centre to identify “high-risk passengers”.

These programs, and other operating procedures of Canada Border Services, were examined in 2007 and in 2008 by the Auditor General. She found significant problems.

The audits revealed that these programs were demonstrably ineffective at properly managing or even using the vast amounts of personal information they collect about millions of law-abiding citizens, but remarkably effective at collecting it.

The 2007 Audit of the Canada Border Agency Services Border Security

The audit of Canada Border Services revealed significant problems impacting the accuracy of personal information. The audit revealed that there was a low level of accuracy and reliability in the personal information collected, used and disclosed for security and intelligence purposes by the NEXUS and Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record program:

  1. when approving applications from people for a NEXUS pass (which allows people to travel in a special lane and be fast-tracked when crossing the border into the U.S.), Canada Border Services didn’t look at the intelligence information in its own databases, thus reducing the accuracy of the assessment;
  2. when the Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record (API/PNR) data is collected from airlines about passengers flying into Canada.  In 2006, Canada Border Services did a study which found that 37% of the data transmitted by airlines was inaccurate.

Not to mention that, despite collecting vast amounts of data about people coming into the country, Canada Border Services could not accurately analyse the data because the Risk Assessment Centre, which identifies national security threats by analyzing advance information on arriving goods and people, does not have access to all the intelligence databases available to Canada Border Services. This will necessarily increase the chance of errors in the assessment of whether an individual is a risk, if information clearing that person of suspicion is in a database that is not available to the assessors.

Accuracy is a key privacy protection principle

Ensuring that personal information is accurate is an important principle of privacy protection. Section 6(2) of the Privacy Act requires a government institution that uses personal information to take reasonable steps to ensure that it is as accurate, complete and up-to-date as possible. If the information about people is not accurate, there is an increased risk that travellers will be incorrectly identified as security threats.

Clearly, Canada Border Services had failed to meet the standard of accuracy required by law. It agreed with all of the recommendations of the Auditor-General and undertook to take steps to improve the accuracy of the information and the ability to properly check personal information against available intelligence data. The outcome of those efforts is not currently known.

* CANPASS is actually five programs: CANPASS Air, for use by people flying commercial flights; CANPASS Corporate Aircraft, for frequent travellers using corporate aircraft; CANPASS Private Aircraft; CANPASS Private Boats; and CANPASS Remote Area Border Crossing.