Ottawa's Security Plan to Collect More Traveler Information in Limbo

A federal plan to improve security by expanding the collection of information about visitors remains in limbo almost two years after it was proposed.

The government began laying the groundwork in early 2003 for enlarging its controversial database of travel data to include details on people arriving not only by airplane, but via ship, ferry, bus and other commercial means.

The idea is still being examined, though there is no suggestion it will be implemented anytime soon.

``Some of our ability to do that would certainly depend on resources and funding, to be able to go into those areas,'' said Chris Kealey, a spokesman for the Canada Border Services Agency.

``At the moment, no, we don't have funding to proceed into those modes.''

The federal government frequently underscores its seamless co-operation with U.S. authorities on border security issues. But a closer look raises questions about how smoothly some of the efforts are unfolding.

Financial challenges, privacy issues and sovereignty concerns are among the issues that must be worked though as agencies on both sides of the border collaborate ever more closely.

The two countries will compare notes on joint efforts Friday when U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft visits Ottawa for an annual forum on cross-border crime fighting.

Co-operation on crime and security issues has taken on special importance since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci bluntly stated this week that it's inevitable that terrorists will consider using Canada as a launch pad for renewed assaults.

That worrisome eventuality makes it more important than ever to improve cross-border teamwork on security, he said.

Behind the scenes, there are persistent rumblings the United States is still pushing Canada to do more on the security front, despite the billions of dollars Ottawa has devoted to policing, border and intelligence programs since 9/11.

The two countries have been working at fully realizing a 30-point border accord drafted in the months after the attacks on New York and Washington.

As part of the plan, the countries agreed to share information on high-risk airline passengers.

The Canada Border Services Agency is already gathering data about air travellers entering Canada.

The data includes: name, birth date, sex, citizenship or nationality, passport number, as well as the destinations to which the passenger is flying, the agent that booked the ticket, seat selection and number of bags checked.

Since at least January, Canada and the U.S. have been negotiating the terms of mutual access to this data.

The CBSA, which will store certain air passenger information for up to six years, ultimately plans to share files with U.S. agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, but some obstacles remain.

``There are some system problems, that we're working on, to resolve,'' said Kealey.

``And there are certainly some privacy issues about what we can share, and with whom, and under what circumstances. Those things are still being ironed out.''

Serious concerns about the protection of Canadians' personal information potentially loom large for the border services agency.

The office of federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart is conducting a sweeping audit of the agency's sharing of information across borders.

Privacy officials felt it was important to study the flow of data _ by hand, phone, electronic exchange or other means _ as part of their review of national security programs, said Renee Couturier, a spokeswoman for the commissioner.

``We're starting to gather information to determine the scope of the audit.''

Findings and recommendations will be submitted to the border services agency. While such reviews aren't usually published, the commissioner has the power to do so if the findings are especially serious.