Jan. 17, 2004. 01:00 AM
Air travellers face screening
Canadian program aims at terrorist `risk scoring' system

Information would be shared with U.S., documents show


OTTAWA—The Canadian government is spending millions of dollars on a program to assess the terrorist risk posed by air travellers.

The project aims to develop a sophisticated "risk scoring" capability and the technical ability to share that information with the United States, according to interviews and documents released under access to information legislation.

The initiative goes beyond the collection of basic passenger information that the federal government authorized after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States.

Few details about how the program operates are publicly available. But it appears to complement a controversial program set to begin this summer in the U.S. that will screen and "colour-code" passengers. The U.S. system will tag high-risk travellers with a "red" alert, and label others as "yellow" to be pulled aside for further questioning or as "green" to be allowed to board.

In Ottawa, a new national risk assessment centre, staffed by customs and immigration enforcement analysts, opened on Tuesday with no fanfare.

Right now, agents there are screening information on passengers only on flights coming into Canada.

Eventually — one official predicted "later this year" — the project will use a new "enhanced" computer screening system to filter data on passengers in a bid to identify high-risk travellers.

The government intends to ultimately expand risk scoring to border-crossing passengers using all modes of transportation.

The risk scoring system will use certain unidentified criteria such as pattern of travel, frequency of travel or past travels to certain regions.

Critics say it amounts to profiling Canadian travellers, and expands the state's incursion into the private lives of innocent individuals. But government officials insist the program will respect privacy guarantees under the Canadian Charter of Rights.

It is clear from documents obtained by public interest researcher Ken Rubin that Ottawa has made it a priority to develop a computer interface that will allow easy sharing of the information with U.S. authorities.

"Obviously for security reasons, I'm not prepared to talk about the types of criteria that we use, but I can say that we don't target or profile passengers based on race, creed or ethnic origin," Mark Connolly, head of customs contraband, intelligence and investigations for the new Canada Border Services Agency, said in an interview.

"Certain parts of the world pose a higher risk for smuggling and terrorism than others," he added. "Basically as a result of that, we scrutinize the flights and traveller information (for people) arriving from those areas more closely as part of our protection mandate really, but we don't profile anybody based on race or creed or ethnic origin."

Connolly said the national risk assessment project "is in the embryonic stage" but he said the goal is to work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agencies to target high-risk people coming into either country. He said that "obviously" means the criteria each country uses will have to match.

One senior federal official, who refused to be identified, conceded critics may see it as an indirect form of racial profiling, "but it is more sophisticated than that." The official also claimed the development of a Canadian "risk scorin g" program maintains Canadian sovereignty over the analysis of raw passenger information.

However, an Ottawa-based coalition of 30 non-governmental agencies, human rights advocates, and civil liberties groups has concerns about the project.

"Looking at this kind of information on travel records, this is the equivalent of setting roadblocks. It's a virtual roadblock in effect," said Roch Tassé, national co-ordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group.

"It's the same as setting up a physical roadblock on every bridge in Canada and when you're a cop, you would be seeking the identity of every passenger in every car on that bridge. This is illegal in Canada. You have no obligations to identify yourself as a citizen in this country under the Charter of Rights."

Civil libertarians are concerned that airline reservation and customs and immigration information will be misused by the authorities.

"If you travel too often to Thailand, then you're suspected of being a pedophile or a `sex tourist'; if you go too often to Colombia, you might be suspected of being a drug dealer or a money launderer," Tassé said.

He also raised the spectre of erroneous profiles being compiled. "The whole policing technique of drafting profiles and having computer programs making those profiles is very scary. It means you can reach some intelligence conclusions that have been done very mechanically, not by human intelligence, and can be full of wrong conclusions."

Last spring, the federal government agreed to put strict checks on the use of passenger information in the wake of widespread complaints about Bill C-17, the public safety bill allowing the aviation data to be shared with the RCMP and CSIS or other agencies for up to six years. The bill was passed by the Commons, but not by the Senate before Parliament was prorogued in November.

In the documents, a summary of project costs says about $35.6 million for computer systems is necessary "for Canada to honour commitments made to the United States." A Nov. 14, 2003 letter notes the costs are "under review."

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