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Smart Borders: A wholesale information sharing and surveillance regime
By: Krista Boa

October 4, 2005

A number of recent events got me thinking yet again about the increasing collection and use of personal information in the name of national security. This summer the Ministry of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness and the Ministry of Transport announced Canada would create a no fly list and examine ways to automate passenger risk assessment. The BC Civil Liberties Association then made public statements against Canada’s creation of a no fly list in an open letter and position paper, as did the federal Privacy Commissioner. Reviewing these documents, I grew frustrated yet again by the secrecy inherent to these information and identification based security and surveillance initiatives, particularly with respect to the type, quantity, and source information gathered, and the criteria used to determine whether an individual is a security threat.

The privacy and civil liberties issues raised by no fly lists necessarily led me to think about the broader context, the national security agenda in both Canada and the United States. To my mind, the Canada-US Smart Borders Declaration and Action Plan is a central, but rarely discussed component of Canada’s national security agenda.

The Canada-U.S. Smart Borders Declaration was announced jointly by both nations in December 2001. It is explicitly positions itself as a response to national security concerns raised by the World Trade Center attacks in September of that year, and lists and briefly describes four areas of cooperation: “1) secure flow of people, 2) secure flow of goods, 3) secure infrastructure, and 4) coordination and information sharing in the enforcement of these objectives”. The Declaration has now evolved into a 32-point Action Plan, the focus of which is an unprecedented level of information sharing (often of personal information), the development and integration of advanced technological systems to facilitate this, and the alignment of information, immigration, and security policies and practices. Action Plan Status Reports describing each country’s progress are periodically and jointly issued, generally toward the end of the calendar year. The most recent one was released in December 2004.

Smart Borders encompasses a range of individual and cooperative initiatives, including US-VISIT, biometric passports in both nations, automated passenger risk assessment, and no fly lists among many others, all of which put privacy rights at risk and increase the potential for mass surveillance exponentially in the name of increasing national security. While the Action Plan Status Reports and general government information (what little there is) about Smart Borders repeatedly state that information will be shared in compliance with the privacy laws of both countries, I am hard pressed to see how this works in practice. (The documents never specify any particular law(s), but imply they will comply with any and/or all laws.) Even if each component program can be made to fit the letter of the law, Smart Borders cannot, by its very magnitude, be made to fit the spirit of the law.

To my mind the Smart Borders agreement between Canada and the United States is one of the most all-encompassing and privacy-invasive initiatives to come out of the security and security technology agenda that emerged post 9/11. It is also one of the least publicized, and has yet to catch fire in its totality in the press or in public debate. Some components, such as no fly lists, national ID cards, and biometrics, have received some attention. These initiatives tend only to remain in the media and public consciousness for a short time before some new security-driven initiative putting privacy at risk or increasing surveillance takes over, one following another. It is too soon to tell whether sustained public debate will arise from last week’s statement by a spokesperson for the Passport Office that Canada would begin issuing biometric passports in the summer or fall 2006 or from the announcement earlier this summer regarding no fly lists and automated passenger risk assessment. Sustained attention to Smart Borders as an umbrella initiative, however, would reveal an agenda that systematically reduces privacy and increases surveillance.

The main problem in attempting to monitor the progress of Smart Borders is the dearth of information linking it with particular component initiatives; it is rarely clear which specific initiatives are part of the greater package. For instance, when plans for Canada’s biometric passport were initially presented last year, it was not positioned as part of the Smart Borders agreement, but as actions taken to comply with ICAO standards. However, according to the most recent Action Plan Status Report not only is the biometric passport itself part of the Smart Border Action Plan, so was lobbying and working with ICAO by both countries to develop an international biometric standard for travel documents. The result of this lobbying, the Action Plan Status Report proudly announces at Point #1, is the international acceptance of a facial biometric as the primary travel document biometric, and fingerprints and iris scans as secondary biometrics.

Concern about the Smart Border Action Plan would be much greater if specific initiatives, such as those listed above, could be understood within the context of the agreement and sustained public attention was trained on Smart Borders as a whole.

The risks to privacy and civil liberties inherent in the Canada-US Smart Borders program are more than the sum of its parts. It is an overall agenda to increase surveillance and information sharing between Canada and the United States. More attention needs to be given to Smart Borders Action Plan as a systematic program that is rapidly eroding privacy while increasing surveillance.

Krista Boa is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto, and part of the SSHRC INE supported Digital Identity Constructions project.
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