Canadian Air Transport Security Authority to Scrutinize Travelers’ Behaviour at Airports

Profiling the behaviour of air travellers to help identify potential terrorists has been news in the United States for several years now, but there has been little public discussion of the practice in Canada. Indeed, airport authorities haven’t included profiling among their security tools here, until last year when the federal government began developing a pilot “passenger-behaviour observation program” for Canadian Air Transport Security Authority officers.

Now that the pilot program has ended, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is making her position known. Jennifer Stoddart says she’s not convinced the technique will actually help screening officers pinpoint genuine threats to national security.

The six-month pilot project at Vancouver airport concluded in July. In January 2010, the Government of Canada asked the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to design a passenger behaviour observation program proposal, in order to respond to the continued threat of terrorism and evolving terrorist methods. CATSA completed its design phase in the New Year.

ASERO Worldwide, based in Washington, D.C., was hired to train Canadian airport employees in the art of detecting the suspicious behaviour of would-be terrorists or criminals.

The project involved about 20 uniformed observation officers roaming the airport, being posted at checkpoints in the queuing areas, scrutinizing and sometimes interacting with passengers regardless of race, gender, age and religion. The officers were looking for such suspicious behaviour or actions as a traveller wearing heavy clothes on a hot day, paying unusual attention to the screening process or sweating profusely; these actions could indicate deception.

CATSA, which oversees air passenger screening, is analyzing data from the trial and preparing a formal assessment of the program’s impact on privacy.

Although the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the Canadian Human Rights Commission were consulted from the get go, Stoddart is not waiting for the formal assessment to come to the conclusion that arbitrary judgments will come into play and make the process unfair and be intrusive to air passengers. She also believes the program will be introduced without valid “scientific basis”.

Stoddart further stated that a scientific consensus does not exist on whether behavior-detection principles are reliable for counter-terrorism purposes.

On the other hand, Transport Canada insists this methodology is based on decades of research that shows there are “certain involuntary, subconscious actions that can be indicative of deception.”

The transport agency says other countries have been using this method successfully for years, or developing similar initiatives, for example, in the United States, Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Russia and Singapore.

Although, passenger behaviour observation can provide an additional layer of security to Canada’s aviation system that focuses on identifying irregular or suspicious behaviour and not racial or ethnic profiles, many believe that it will be used for racial profiling. Internal Transport Canada briefing notes, obtained under the Access to Information Act, acknowledge that passenger behaviour observation has “complex operational, policy, legal, and privacy and human rights dimensions.”

This is only one of the security measures CATSA has implemented or is looking at in the name of national security (others include full body scanners, new identification programs, mandatory passports to fly overseas, biometrics embedded in passports, airport screening personnel, and more).

Without a doubt, to me anyway, passenger behaviour observation will require some type of profiling to be successful and cannot help but be intrusive. But in our day and age, this may be inevitable.

However, it’s not clear to me that the right person to perform the behavioural observation is a security officer who stands around and watches from a distance. Passengers interact with numerous officials from the time they enter an airport to the time they get on a plane, from the check-in clerk who provides your boarding pass to the gate attendant who checks your passport and ticket, and various security screeners in between. Any or all of these workers could be trained to scan for questionable behaviour without making passengers nervous. Gate attendants in particular look at a passenger’s ticket and passport and talk to the individual as part of their regular duty.

Furthermore, I am not sure that a six-month trial period in one airport is time enough to gather convincing data to confirm the need or validate such a potentially intrusive screening program.

Finally, few people in government or the media are commenting on whether such measures as behavioural profiling and full-body scanners are actually making airports and air travellers safer. Threats to travellers through Canadian airports have been detected without these methodologies, and it is not clear that authorities could not continue as they have. So the questions are: Can officials observe passenger behaviour without profiling? Will such observation work as intended?

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