Civil rights groups, activists and provincial privacy commissioners are all lining up behind federal privacy commissioner George Radwanski against a new federal government database they claim is too invasive.
The database in question has been created by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency to gather advance passenger information on travelers, Canadian and foreign, entering Canada.
It was originally justified as a response to the events of Sept. 11, but critics say the database goes beyond that, and the information gathered will be used across the government for much wider purposes.
“”The government has said the intention is to give the database to other agencies of government so it can be trawled for infractions of the income tax laws, terrorism, or pedophiles, or any kind of criminal activity,”” says Darell Evans, executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “”There’s no limits.””
Evans’ group has joined six other privacy advocacy groups across the country in opposition to the CCRA database, and to rally support for Radwanski, who has spoken out against wider uses for the database.
Evans says the scope of the database is far too broad, and he’s sure it will be challenged before too long in the Supreme Court of Canada for violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“”You can’t just raid a whole block of houses on the presumption there might be a criminal in one of them. They do that in totalitarian states,”” he says. “”It seems that as things get more electronic, we’re losing the rights we’ve very painfully fought for just because the technology makes it easy to do.””
B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis has also spoken out against the CCRA database, and has sent two letters to CCRA Minister Elinor Caplan on the issue. He wrote the second letter on Nov. 21 after the response from agency officials to his first letter left him even more concerned about CCRA’s plans.
Loukidelis says he was originally supportive of Bill C-55, which gave the RCMP the power to compel air carriers to disclose detailed advance passenger information for the purposes of combating terrorism. He says there’s obviously a clear public interest in giving them that information, and it was on a time-limited basis.
However, he says it has since became clear that the CCRA plans a widespread surveillance program that goes beyond anti-terrorism activities, using terrorism concerns as a cover.
“”I continue to believe that when we’re talking about analyses of data that will cause or create derivative data, that could lead to false conclusions being drawn,”” says Loukidelis. “”I haven’t been persuaded yet that there’s a clear and compelling public interest that authorizes this to be done.””
Loukidelis says he has no problem with the database being available on a read-only basis for customs officers at point of entry to identify people for secondary screening. But “”I do have a problem with this information becoming part of a big database that just builds and builds. I think (advances in technology) is part of what’s driving this: ‘We’ve got the technology, let’s do it.'””
Add in the smokescreen of post-Sept. 11 security concerns and he says it’s very difficult politically for critics to make any headway.
In his latest letter to Caplan, Radwanski included legal opinions from a retired Supreme Court Justice and a former deputy Justice Minister, both of which conclude the database is in violation of the Charter of Rights of Freedoms.
“”I cannot imagine what more a reasonable person such as yourself can require to be persuaded that this database initiative is untenable and cannot stand,”” he wrote.
At this point the CCRA doesn’t appear ready to budge. Derik Hodgson, a spokesperson for Elinor Caplan’s office, says the minister is aware of the concerns raised by Radwanski and others.
However, while Hodgson says Caplan knows the agency needs to leave a proper paper trail and be regularly audited by the privacy commissioner, he says she has given no indication she’ll be making any changes.
Hodgson confirms the database will be used for public health issues. For example, he says, if it is learned someone recently on a flight had the Ebola virus, the database would be used to identify at risk passengers. And the database was already used in two recent drug busts at airports in Vancouver and Toronto, matching advance passenger information with criminal look-out lists.
“”It won’t be used for fishing expeditions, and it is not a big brother database,”” insists Hodgson.
Civil liberties groups, provincial privacy commissioners, and the federal privacy commissioner remain unconvinced however, and the issue seems destined for the Supreme Court.
Jeff Jedras is ITBusiness.ca’s B.C. correspondent.