Opinion » Editorial


Another blunt instrument in the name of security


Last week Canada introduced Passenger Protect, the latest assault on civil liberties and another of the thousand cuts slowly crippling the travel business and everyone dependent upon it.

Passenger Protect is Transport Canada’s secret list of Canadians who have been determined to be a threat to civil aviation. The list is put together with input from CSIS and the RCMP and reportedly contains between 500 and 2,000 names right now.

Unlike China Airlines, and every other commercial carrier that flies in Canada, Canadians won’t know if they — or someone with a similar name — are on the list until they get to a Canadian airport. There, they will be denied entry to a plane if they are on the no-fly list.

But they won’t necessarily be taken away in handcuffs. Passenger Protect isn’t a list of criminals, it’s a list of suspected security risks. Who suspects them? What suspicious activities have they been up to? It’s all secret information, shared only amongst airlines and Canada’s security services…. And probably U.S. security officials, who also have their own no-fly list and an embarrassing string of instances where law-abiding citizens, including at least one government representative, with the same name as terror suspects have been denied access to a plane.

In the nearly six years since the 9/11 attacks on America a series of blunt instruments have been introduced, in the United States and Canada, in the name of security and fighting terrorism. Many of these measures have related to airline travel and border crossings. Recall the early days after 9/11 when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was issuing colour-coded terror warnings. These warnings were issued based on “chatter” heard by intelligence officials. What people were supposed to do with this information was never clear.

In those nervous months after 9/11 six flights from Paris to Los Angeles were cancelled after U.S. officials told French officials that, based on chatter heard, terrorists might hijack one of their planes. British Airways flights to Washington and Riyadh were also cancelled on the basis of “security advice.” U.S. officials then began urging some foreign airlines to post armed marshals on flights to America.

Further investigation into the cancelled Air France and British Airways flights found little, except that a five-year-old child on one of the French flights had a similar sounding name to a Tunisian terrorist.

For 99 per cent of Canadians, Passenger Protect will have no impact on their lives, including their travels. But the no-fly list is an affront to all Canadians and to the principle of innocence until proven guilty.

That doesn’t mean that airlines shouldn’t have the right to deny access to people. Airlines are responsible for their passengers’ and crews’ safety. If someone is acting suspiciously, is belligerent or is determined by airline personnel to be a risk then they can deny that person access to the airplane. That authority and responsibility has always existed, and it applies to the manager of a nightclub or the operator of a ski lift, just as it does to an airline official.

The problem with Passenger Protect is that it is a secret list. There is no defined criteria — as far as we know — for being on the list. There is no independent review of the list. All that is needed for your name to be on the list is for someone to suspect you.

In the aftermath of 9/11 U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney introduced the one per cent doctrine: if there was a one per cent chance of a breach of security that hole had to be plugged. That thinking led to many of the intrusive security measures that are now a part of our every-day lives. Removing shoes and belts and putting them through X-ray scanners at airports; strict limits on the volume of liquids that can be carried on airplanes; armed Canadian border guards; denying foreigners entry to Canada because of 20-year-old pot possession charges.

No one will deny the need for security; it’s the way the Canadian and U.S. governments are going about it — it’s more cosmetic than real, it’s infringing on our individual rights and it’s slowly eroding the foundations of civil society.

It also isn’t doing those of us in the travel business — that would be all of Whistler — any favours. And given the current penchant for governments of all stripes to follow the one per cent doctrine when it comes to security, what are we in for during the Olympics in 2010?