America’s Secure Flight Program

Canadian travellers under the microscope over the States

Wednesday 18 February 2009, by Gabrièle Briggs

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

This year will see the implementation
of a new piece of American legislation
developed by the Department
of Homeland Security called the
Secure Flight Program (SFP). The
bill contains at least one measure
that has raised the ire of many
Canadian civil liberties organisations;
airlines must provide the United
States’ Transportation Security
Administration with such personal
information as a passenger’s passport
and travel itinerary three days before
any flight goes through American
airspace. All information gathered
is subsequently cross-referenced
against lists of suspected terrorists
and criminals. This vetting process
determines whether a passenger
is given a boarding card, required
to undergo further screening, or is
prohibited from travelling.

The International Civil Liberties
Monitoring Group (ICLMG),
an association of 38 Canadian
organisations and unions, worries
about the repercussions this new
measure will have on Canadian
independence with respect to the
United States. “The Americans will
have a veto on every passenger
that gets on a plane in Canada,
even if they are not going to set foot
on American soil,” laments Roch
Tassé, the ICLMG’s coordinator.
Tassé is also concerned because of
the differences that exist between
Canadian and American international
policies, given that this program
theoretically cedes to the United
States control over immigration,
refugee seekers and even diplomacy,
“What will happen if Canada invites
the ambassador from a country
such as Cuba?” He believes
that the SFP is nothing short of a
forced harmonisation of Canadian
visa policies with respect to the
Americans’.

The ICLMG is not alone with
its concerns. The Air Transport
Association of Canada (ATAC) made
their grievances known to America’s
Department of Homeland Security
last December. Chief among ATAC’s
critique, “the submission of Canadian
passenger’s details by Canadian
airlines violates Canada’s laws on the
protection of personal information
and electronic documents, as well as
laws on aeronautics.”

Indeed, even the Canadian
government stuck its head ever so
slightly above the parapet in response
to its powerful neighbour’s requests;
Lawrence Cannon, the then Minister
of Transport, Infrastructure and
Communities, sent a communiqué in
November 2007, “Considering our
complementary aviation systems, as
well as the systematic cooperation
between our two countries, the
government of Canada believes there
are solid reasons to exempt from the
SFP a flight to or from Canada if the
plane is only flying over American
territory without landing there.”

Benoît Gagnon, head of the Security,
Identity and Technology Research
Chair of Canada underlines that
“the SFP is the next in a long line
of information gathering programs.
Little by little, we are letting the
United States run our security.” In
fact, since Sepetember 11 2001
Canada and the United States have
redoubled their efforts to integrate
their border security systems, most
notably with the Canada-U.S Smart
Border Declaration which facilates
information exchanges between the
two allies. According to Gagnon,
it is too early to tell what kind of an
impact these developments will have
on Canadian sovereignty.

Even without the SFP, the transfer of
personal information between the two
governments led to complications
for Canadians crossing the border.
In June 2007, Teresa Healy, the lead
reseacher of the Canadian Labour
Congress, was the subject of a
prolonged interrogation by American
customs officers at the Cornwall,
Ontario border crossing when she
set-off a radiation detector. After it
came to light that the radiation was
due to medical tests, they switched
the subject of the interrogation
to her 1991 arrest at a nonviolent
protest. No charges were filed at
the time, but the customs officers
had her digitized fingerprints at their
disposal nonetheless. “They told
me, ‘don’t worry about it, we’re just
keeping them in case you ever do
anything else.’”

Healy is still outraged, “I was shocked
that the Canadian government gave
my file to the Americans when I was
declared innocent.” She tried to bring
her case to the Office of the Privacy
Commissioner of Canada, but they
told her that there was nothing that
could be done as it is part of an
international agreement.

Experiences such as Teresa Healy’s
risk becoming more common if
passenger vetting begins to apply
to those who are not entering the
United States. Citizens wishing
to register their opposition to the
program, however, have problems of
their own, warns Benoît Gagnon, “if
we protest against it, the Canadian
government will say that it isn’t their
policy and the American government
will say that we aren’t their citizens.
It’s a vicious circle.”

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