Under U.S. pressure, Canada toils in secret on complex air screening system

OTTAWA — U.S. efforts to bolster airline security with advanced computers are putting intense pressure on Canada to ferret out threats by building a similar electronic system that will allow security agencies to analyze the personal information of every passenger.

An internal Public Safety Department report says the planned system, which would crunch the personal details about more than 200 million people annually, will improve security while "demonstrating to the U.S. that Canada remains committed to the security of North America."

"Work has already begun to review Canada's approach to assessing air passengers," says the report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

In sharp contrast to this week's splashy announcement of see-through airport scanners, officials have been quietly toiling in the shadows on the complex system, which involves input from the Canada Border Services Agency, Transport Canada, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and RCMP.

The government set aside $282 million in the 2009 budget over two years to support aviation security improvements, including the new air passenger assessment system.

Critics question whether the project is a wise use of money and argue there should be public debate and scrutiny of the potentially invasive tool.

Details are still sketchy, but such systems gauge the risk someone might pose based on an array of disparate information rather than whether they actually pose a specific threat, said Mark Salter, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa's school of political studies.

A key problem with that approach is there is no clear set of characteristics that might identify a suicide bomber, Salter said.

"My concern is that we don't have the data or the intelligence to make those decisions about profiles in ways that are sensible and useful," Salter said.

"I think there's no doubt that it is the Americans that are pushing this."

The Air Passenger Assessment and Security system would build on the existing Canadian no-fly list, known as the Passenger Protect program, in place since 2007.

"Efforts are needed to decrease the vulnerability of airlines from being used in the planning or execution of terrorist acts against Canada or other targets," says a declassified version of the secret draft Public Safety report on the initiative, prepared in January 2009.

Officials from Public Safety and Transport Canada did not respond to requests for comment on the status of the project.

However, the report makes it clear that a key driver is implications for Canada of the U.S. Secure Flight program.

Secure Flight would collect the name, gender and birth date of the approximately five million Canadians who fly through American airspace each year en route to destinations such as the Caribbean, Mexico and South America - even if their planes don't touch the ground in the States.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration would then check the names against security watch lists, which could result in extra screening or even being barred from a flight.

The United States has said it will waive the Secure Flight requirement to provide information for overflights if Canada creates a "sufficiently robust" screening system.

The pending application of the Secure Flight rules "makes a decision on the development of a Canadian system both timely and compelling," says the Public Safety report.

Security officials are scrambling in the aftermath of an apparent attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day by igniting explosives sewn into his clothes.

In 2007, Canadian airports served more than 100 million commercial passengers, says the Public Safety report. There are more than 1,100 scheduled commercial flights between Canada and the United States, and an additional 300 with other countries.

"Building a more robust air passenger system would see passenger data on individuals flying within, to or from Canada automatically shared with the federal government."

Details of exactly how the proposed system would work were stripped from documents released to The Canadian Press.

Roch Tasse of the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group wonders whether anyone on a U.S. no-fly list would be rejected under the Canadian scheme.

"Are we going to apply American standards? That's the bottom-line concern."

The National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents the four largest carriers, favours a Canadian version of the Secure Flight system as long as carriers don't bear any new costs.

Last March, the airlines council told Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan in a letter that application of U.S. Secure Flight rules in Canada "is a direct result of the failure to ensure" that Canada's no-fly list, known as Passenger Protect, is "an accepted part of a continental aviation security system."