Nanny State

Privacy Watch

Keeping track of their man


Canada's official privacy watchdog is barking mad over a newly instituted security program. Our northern neighbors are keeping a six-year database detailing the names, birthdays, citizenship status, destination flown, form of payment for ticket, and number of bags checked, among other details, for anyone flying into Canada.

George Radwanski, Canada's privacy commissioner—an official ombudsman position without the power to change the law—has been protesting to Canada's minister of national revenue, who is responsible for the program since it is officially a customs function. In a letter, Radwanski wrote that the plan is "an unprecedented intrusion…the first time the federal government has set out to build a database on all Canadians using personal information obtained from third parties [airlines] without their individual consent, for purposes not of providing any service to individuals but rather of having the information available to potentially use against them."

Radwanski solicited opinions from a retired Canadian Supreme Court justice and a former justice minister, who both concluded that the plan violates Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Radwanski doesn't question the customs service's right to collect the data, but he does object to making the information available to other government agencies for a wide range of purposes, including income tax collection and criminal law enforcement fishing expeditions. During parliamentary hearings over the scheme, he didn't intervene because he was assured that "there would be no general retention" of the data collected.

Elinor Caplan, the minister of national revenue, argues that the program is necessary. "The sort of catastrophe that can be brought about by weapons of mass destruction," she says, "is without a doubt justification for keeping this information."

Canada's data collection—and the justification for it—dovetail with U.S. government policy post-9/11. In December the White House issued a long press release cheering U.S.-Canada coordination on "information sharing" and praising the Canadian air travel database. The collected data, the release announced, would be shared by both countries by spring 2003.