Privacy, link analysis and counter-terrorism

Battle lines may soon be drawn for a confrontation over “the world’s longest undefended border,” the 8,800 kilometres that divide Canada and the United States. A recent Conference Board of Canada symposium in Ottawa heard arguments for a different kind of border, based on a different relationship.

It was inevitable in the post 9-11 world that the U.S. would impose much higher standards for documentation needed to enter that country. In January, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative required air travellers from Canada entering the U.S. to carry a passport or documents of similar reliability; similar standards will soon be imposed on land and sea crossings. In effect, the onus is now on Canada, and every other country, to prove that their documentation meets U.S. standards.

However, information technology departments may well be asked to do more than certify the security of their processes and data. There will be increasing pressure to match Canadian governments’ IT to their American counterparts in the interests of facilitating information sharing, not least because the U.S. has had some recent success in data analysis for counter-terrorism.

Paul Rosenzweig, the Homeland Security Department’s acting assistant secretary for international affairs, told the symposium: “There is a very different attitude towards the role of the government vis-a-vis personal information and data sharing and we in the U.S. have become deeply convinced that enhanced exchanges of information are the key to preventing the next terrorist attack.”

Rosenzweig said both Canada and the U.S. had collectively done a good job to make sure they can take action against people who are already known and recognized as terrorists. “What we don’t know are what we call the ‘clean skins,’ we don’t know their names or information about them. And the only way we have come up with to identify those people is through link analysis, information sharing. ‘Mr. Smith used the same credit card as a known terrorist,’ that sort of thing.”

Link analysis techniques that reveal a shared telephone number allowed officers at Minneapolis airport to take an Iranian passenger to secondary screening for an interview, during which they found a ‘martyrdom video’ in his luggage, a videotape intended to posthumously explain his reasons for carrying out a terrorist attack.

That kind of success comes from the instantaneous analysis of information that many if not most Canadian citizens would consider private, and which they would not willingly permit their government to share with another.

This attitude is no surprise to Rosenzweig. “I have a sense, a strong sense, that Canada is less persuaded both of the utility of [link analysis] and of the efficacy of the privacy protection mechanisms, personal liberty protection mechanisms, that are in place,” he said.

The U.S. wants to screen people long before they reach the border and that means either an exchange of information, trusted documentation or both. The visa waiver programs that both Canada and the U.S. operate make the assumption that citizens of third countries are who they claim to be and have not fallen under the suspicion of their own governments. The Americans consider these programs as key to their security regime.

Unfortunately, Canada has 47 countries on its waiver list, while the U.S. has only 27. This difference is more than academic. “Canada has added more and more countries, while the U.S. has shown some reluctance to do so because of security concerns,” Rosenzweig said.

If both countries want to streamline border crossings in either direction, the visa waiver systems should be synchronized and the countries on each list should be the same.

“That is the big idea we’ve brought to the table in the last six months or so, and we have begun discussions with the Canadian government,” he said. “It is a hard idea. We know it kind of calls on both parties to check their sovereignty at the door and see what kinds of shared vision we can come up with.”

It does not take a deep knowledge of Canadian attitudes about the U.S. to understand that it is probably not just a “hard idea” but may well be a completely unacceptable one. It is extremely difficult to imagine Canada getting or keeping countries on that list and all too easy to imagine the Americans keeping them off.

The old border is gone and a sales campaign for a new and improved one is being rolled out now. If the Conference Board symposium was a valid indicator, the message in the months ahead will be that security based on shared information makes our border safer, and even speeds up trade and travel. Canadians may not be ready to listen.

Richard Bray is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist specializing in high technology and security. He can be contacted at

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