EXCLUSIVE: Secret documents say Canada’s no-fly list poses ‘national security risk,’ but a fix is still years away
Canada’s so-called “no-fly list” presents both “national security and privacy risks,” according to documents created by Public Safety Canada and obtained by Global News through an access to information request.
But despite the seriousness of these risks, Canada is still roughly two years or more away from fixing problems with the current system.
Other documents — including some marked as “SECRET” — describe possible changes the government plans to make to the existing screening process. It says these changes will reduce the risk of “listed individuals” being allowed to board planes, while also leading to “reduced national security risks related to the list being shared with third parties,” such as foreign and domestic airlines.
“Screening again[st] the [no-fly] list has been delegated to air carriers (domestic and foreign) which presents both national security and privacy risks,” said one document obtained by Global News.
Once implemented, the new system will also lead to “enhanced fairness” for Canadians falsely identified as being on the list — including children — the documents said.
Under the proposed changes, airlines will provide the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) with passenger information roughly 72-hours before check-in. This includes a passenger’s first and last names, date of birth and gender. Transport Canada analysts will then compare this information against the Secure Air Travel Act (SATA) list to determine who is allowed to board a flight.
According to the documents, this will improve safety and privacy for Canadians by creating a “government-controlled” screening process.
“We want to make sure it’s done, but done right,” said Sulemaan Ahmed, whose nine-year-old son Adam has been mistakenly flagged as being on the list.
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Ahmed is a spokesperson for the group No Fly List Kids, which represents the families of children whose names are the same or similar to those as people on the list. While he thinks the government is taking the issue of fixing the current system seriously, he says he can’t believe it’s taken so long to find possible solutions to problems the government has known about for years.
“I naively thought we’d get this resolved in six months,” he said.
Ahmed met with government officials in Ottawa two weeks ago. He says he was told a fix to the current system could be in place sometime between mid-2020 and early-2021.
But documents obtained by Global News show the new system may not be up and running until late-2022 or even early-2023 — a full two years longer than what government officials told Ahmed.
“We’re going on good faith based on what the government and Public Safety are telling us,” Ahmed said. “Our expectation is two years [before it is fixed].”
Why the delay?
A major cause for delay in implementing the new system is that the government currently has no authority to make any of its proposed changes until its massive omnibus security bill — Bill C-59 — becomes law.
The government also needs to pass Bill C-21, which gives the CBSA legal authority to create an enhanced Entry/Exit system tracking people who travel to Canada. According to the documents, holdups in implementing this system are at least partially responsible for possible delays in rolling out the new SATA screening process.
The government also needs to work with airlines — foreign and domestic — to ensure the new rules are implemented correctly. According to the documents, this step alone could take as long as 12 months. There are also questions about whether small and remote airlines will be exempted from the new regulations, the documents said.
And while documents suggest the government was actively pursuing ways to speed up this process, there’s no indication they were successful.
WATCH: Secret documents reveal possible changes to Canada’s no-fly list
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the government is working “as quickly as possible” to implement the new system. He said it’s clear there are issues with the way it works now — and that’s why the government is moving to fix it — but would not comment on whether the current system is in fact a national security risk as the documents indicate.
“Implementing the enhanced [no-fly list] is a substantial undertaking that will take time. It involves the passage of legislation, new regulations, the development and testing of IT systems, and air carriers adopting the new system,” said government spokesperson Scott Bardsley.
He says the way the system works now “enhances security” by identifying dangerous individuals and insists the government has “robust” measures in place to protect Canadians from possible threats.
How it works now
Under the current system, Canada provides the SATA list to 122 foreign and domestic airlines, states a recent government document provided by Ahmed.
According to another document obtained by Global News, information about the list is sometimes shared in the form of an Excel spreadsheet.
Airlines then use the list to screen passengers against information they received at the time a ticket was purchased. Anyone identified as a potential match with the list must be flagged to Transport Canada, which then notifies Public Safety.
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This entire process is dependent upon airlines following the rules and making sure screening is done properly.
“The fact that these lists exist at all means they were always going to be shared with airlines in countries who might or might not be our allies,” said Brenda McPhail, director of privacy and surveillance at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
“[Canadians] whose information is being shared on one of these controversial and consequential lists ought to — at a minimum — know that their government has taken adequate security precautions,” she said.
While anyone who law enforcement believes may pose a threat to air safety or who might travel abroad to commit terrorist acts can be put on the list, getting off the list when falsely identified is far more difficult, she said.
This, combined with the fact that Public Safety apparently has concerns with the way information is being shared, should be enough for the government to reconsider the list’s continued use, she says.
“If the purpose of this list is to protect our national security and it is failing … then it’s hard to justify the existence of the list,” McPhail said.
New system to prevent ‘false-positives’
One of the biggest problems with the current system is that some people — including children — are falsely identified as being on the SATA list because their name is the same or similar to someone who is actually on the list.
For Ruby Alvi, this means worrying that one of her three sons — aged 20, 19 and 16 — could be detained while travelling abroad or potentially subjected privacy breaches just because their names are the same or similar to those as someone actually on the list.
But unlike other countries, such as the United States, Canada has no official mechanism for ensuring people falsely identified as being on the list to prove they are not a threat.
“Absolutely, it poses a security risk,” Alvi said. “I have three boys on the list. They’re not cute little kids right now that people are just going to say ‘clearly you’re not people on the list.’”
Alvi says she’s “not happy” that possible fixes to these problems could still be years away, but she agrees the government is taking this issue seriously.
“I’m relieved that they recognize sharing of personal, private information does pose a risk to people who are innocently on those lists,” she said. “Hopefully lessons will be learned from this moving forward.”
In the meantime, the “national security” and “privacy” risks described by the government will persist, while passengers such as Alvi’s sons will continue to deal with an imperfect system Alvi says violates their rights and forces them to be subjected to an unfair process.
“Everybody agrees that it doesn’t make sense for airlines to be custodians of this list,” she said. “If this is a national security issue than you would think that the government would be the people in charge.”
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