MONTREAL -- Canada currently is relying on a secret and sometimes problematic U.S. government database to identify people who are supposed to be barred from flying or subjected to greater screening.
For now, that is. But a Canadian government representative signaled this week at the 2007 Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference that this may change.
Stephen McCammon from the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissoner's Office said that Canada may develop and maintain its own lists that would not be as problematic. Constitutional law professors, dead people, and the president of Bolivia have reportedly appeared on the U.S. lists. The political flap over a Canadian computer engineer sent to Syria and tortured can't have helped either.
"The inevitable byproduct of (the current system) is false positives," he said. "It's going to err on the side of caution."
McCammon referenced how secret lists of undesirable people have their "origin in recent memory in the HUAC blacklist of Hollywood" and cited "the experience of Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans in World War II." He also noted that "transgendered people face particular ID concerns."
The Transportation Security Administration, part of Homeland Security, administers two lists: a "no fly" list and a "selectee" list (which mandates additional screening). They're given to airlines and stored on their computers and used to identify passengers who have names matching someone on the list, which can of course be a problem when a popular name appears on it.
They've been overinclusive, with TSA officials acknowledging that about 30,000 airline passengers over roughly a year were mistakenly matched with those appearing on federal watch lists.
CBS News obtained a copy and called it "incomplete, inaccurate, outdated and a source of aggravation for thousand of innocent Americans."
U.S. government representatives at the Montreal CFP conference responded that procedures were in place to identify and fix errors, and suggested that Canada should stick with the United States' system.
Lyn Rahilly, privacy officer for the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, said that "we provide TSA with the names" and "we do a very deep scrub of any complaint we receive when the person is actually on the watch list."
However, she said, "we cannot confirm or deny to any individual whether they are on or are not on the consolidated terrorist watch list... Obviously that provides some challenges to us in terms of providing redress. That person is on the list for a legitimate reason." (Or, that is, a person with a similar name.)
Tim Edgar, the deputy civil liberties protection officer at the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said there's a "fairly soft trigger" to get on the watch list.
"But there's a higher standard, a higher bar, for getting on the no fly list," Edgar said. He described the procedures in place to respond to complaints.
In response to a question saying that courts should oversee who gets on the list, Edgar responded that "Congress and the public and the president have made a decision to have this kind of system, which obviously has significant costs... Your right to travel does not necessarily mean your right to travel by airplane."
Addendum on May 14: McCammon emailed us to take issue with this article. First, he said, he was not necessarily speaking on behalf of the Canadian government: "I neither work for the Ontario nor indeed the Canadian government; I work for an independent officer of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario whose mandate includes commenting on proposed government programs that affect privacy rights."
Second, he said he's worried that the Canadian passenger profiling lists could be as buggy as the American experience: "My concern is that the Canadian approach may be no less problematic. In referring to recent Parliamentary testimony by Transport Canada officials to the effect that the Canadian and U.S. systems are "conceptually" similar (see the Hansard from the Senate of Canada's Standing Committee on National Security and Defence of February 12, 2007, as well as the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security of March 1, 2007), I made the case that both the U.S. and the Canadian approaches suffer from the same basic flaws - a lack of legal constraints, too much secrecy, and worrisomely inadequate remedial and oversight machinery."
In addition, the conference program had incorrectly listed the Terrorist Screening Center's affiliation inside the U.S. government, an error we unintentionally reproduced. We've since fixed it: TSC is part of the FBI.