Government walks the border between security and privacy

Finding the right balance between security and privacy is never easy. And whether the Canadian government’s efforts to secure its borders in the wake of Sept. 11 strikes that balance depends on your perspective, according to Greg Lane, a director at large for CIPS.

In its December budget, the federal government invested $7.7 billion in an effort to secure Canada’s borders while at the same time keeping them open to both goods and people. The increased security measures will include advanced information sharing technology to help customs officers screen travellers and upgraded information management systems to help the RCMP in collecting and analyzing intelligence.

“There’s an awful lot of investment in this budget associated with security and there’s always a healthy or potentially unhealthy, I suppose, trade-off between rights of individuals and rights of society in terms of what do you need to know to keep it secure versus being invasive. It’s hard to say which side you should err on,” said Ottawa-based Lane, who is also responsible for business development at Deloitte Consulting.

“I think, clearly in the aftermath of Sept. 11, there’s a much greater support to err on the side of being safe as opposed to protecting individual rights,” he said.

In terms of security, he believes that Ottawa is off on the right track.

“One of the concerns would be is you can’t just buy technology. If you have big systems being implemented, the three elements are the people, the processes and the technology itself. And no one alone is right…When you read through this, there is language that does suggest that they recognize that the people have to be trained in order to deal with it, because it is an awful lot of investment on specific technology.”

His main concern regarding the security measures is that they were inspired by a sense of urgency rather than a sense of importance – and urgency has a tendency to fade over time.

The security measures include an effort to share more information between various law enforcement agencies and other government agencies – and this is bound to raise some privacy concerns.

“There’s an attempt here to try and share. That in itself is considered invasive…One of the things that I’ve observed is that some of that is peculiarly North American,” Lane said. Europeans are more understanding of such measures, he said.

Profiling could help increase security, he said.

“If you work in these kinds of areas, there are certain profiles in all elements of business that have higher risks for anything. And to the extent that you can profile anything and identify your high risk, and potentially not inconvenience people that aren’t risk and focus on the target area – well, by definition, that’s ‘not fair.’ It isn’t. By the same definition that’s more fair globally because you’re not putting everybody through the same type of rigour because genuinely that’s not where the risk comes from. People travelling from A to B domestically who do that every day – commute if you will – who are known, who can be identified, maybe shouldn’t be put through the same security challenges as people who don’t,” Lane said.

“What’s the difference between (being) discriminating and selective, or risk profiling. I think it has everything to do with where you’re sitting. If you’re sitting in being one of the groups that’s being profiled it’s discrimination. If you’re not, then you see it as being prudent and applying resources where there’s the most benefit.”

Soon after the attacks, Ottawa announced that it would look into biometrics as a possible solution for airport security.

The privacy commissioner of Canada, George Radwanski doesn’t believe that this should raise any privacy issues, as long as the government doesn’t hold onto non-pertinent information. If the government scanned everyone’s face as they passed through airport security, used facial recognition technology to check those images against a databank of known terrorists and then expunged all of those images that didn’t match, then the government’s actions would be reasonable, the Ottawa-based Radwanski said.

“The other would be a grave violation of privacy – if a record of everyone was being kept, even if they didn’t match,” he said.

However, he wonders how effective facial recognition technology can be.

“First of all, it presupposes that images of terrorists are on file and on record,” Radwanski said. The technology also presupposes those willing to carry out suicide attacks aren’t willing to have their appearances surgically altered, he said.

For biometrics technology to be a viable solution, law enforcement agencies need to be able to send the information back and forth to each other, said Barry Gander, a senior advocate, public policy, for CATA in Ottawa. That’s just one of the reasons Gander believes the government shouldn’t have short shrifted Canada’s broadband initiative in the budget.

“If you’re looking for security fixes along the border, you’re obviously going to be needing to send vast amounts of information back and forth from remote border crossings, rural border crossings. There is a need to send facial recognition information, biometric information back and fourth between computers,” he said.