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article imageCanadian airports wired to eavesdrop on travelers' conversations

By Leigh Goessl     Jun 18, 2012 in World
Canadian airports and border crossings are getting new technology installed on-site that will enable authorities to listen in on travelers' conversations.
According to the Edmonton Journal, via Ottawa Citizen, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) announced audio-video monitoring and recording is already established at a number of airports and border entry points. The agency has not shared which CBSA sites have these high-definition cameras and microphones installed.
Audio not yet activated, but will be
CBSA stated the initiative is in place to augment "border integrity, infrastructure and asset security and health and safety." The audio portion of the installation is not activated yet, but there are future plans for it to be operational said the agency.
"It is important to note that even though audio technology is installed, no audio is recorded at this time. It will become functional at a later date," CBSA spokesman Chris Kealey said in a written statement.
The issues
This program has sparked some controversy due to the privacy issues that are involved with recording conversations.
According to the Toronto Star, Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's privacy commissioner and a leading privacy expert, is "appalled" of the plans to eavesdrop on travelers, noting there is a distinct difference between video and audio.
Cavoukian points out private phone calls to doctors, lovers or any other type of conversation that would ordinarily expect a level of privacy, reported The Spec.com.
“Covertly monitoring . . . all of their conversations, that’s pretty intrusive . . . I think that’s a little extreme,” Halifax privacy lawyer David Fraser, a privacy expert at the Halifax law firm of McInnes Cooper, told The Star. He forsees problems emerging, and that recordings of traveler conversations will be challenged under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“You could totally imagine somebody saying (something innocuous) and it being misconstrued and that bad things happen as a consequence,” Fraser told the Toronto Star Monday, but did note information from the CBSA is "rather sketchy" at this time.
Additionally, employees and their unions are concerned that their conversations will be continuously monitored. Media reports indicate that unions only heard of this initiative recently.
One of the reasons cited for the upped security is being attributed to organized crime groups operating out of airports, reported The Atlantic Wire.
Reportedly, the privacy rights of law have been respected, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said.
The public's right to know
Individuals and groups are concerned with how this aspect of security is being handled and whether or not the audio recordings are justified. Additionally, there is the aspect of whether or not people will know where and when their conversations are being recorded.
The agency states the public will be given "ample" notice before the audio monitoring comes into effect. CBSA plans to put a privacy notice on its website with a help line people can call if they want clarification of how the recordings are being stored, retained, used and disclosed.
Cavoukian said this wasn't "acceptable" and "at an absolute minimum" notices need to be posted in the areas where audio recordings are taking place, and those signs route people to the CBSA website to read, indicating people have a right to know which areas their conversations are being listened in on.
Are the tradeoffs worth it?
The situation does pose many questions. Do the risks and/or threats of crime or terrorism justify capturing audio of every conversation in a Canadian airport or border crossing? Will any benefit be derived from this? What about costs involved to not only install the equipment, but the expenses associated with the manpower required to maintain and monitor what's captured?
Are the tradeoffs going to be worth the effort? Sympatico News stated, "When we give up privacy, there has to be a good reason. The payoff has to outweigh what we are surrendering."
Fraser noted concerned individuals can contact The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
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