Op-ed by Jennifer Stoddart
Privacy Commissioner of Canada
Many air passengers subjected to Canada’s latest airport security measure will find the experience of standing in a full-body scanner to be discomfiting, if not outright disturbing. But while any invasion of privacy is deplorable, the federal government has promised to respect the privacy and human dignity of travellers.
Like all Canadians, we will be watching closely to ensure that the government keeps to its word.
Transport Minister John Baird announced on Jan. 5 that the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) would install 44 millimetre-wave imaging scanners in airports across Canada. The machines aim to detect ceramic weapons, liquid or plastic explosives, or drug packages that could be smuggled through conventional metal detectors.
The technology, which can penetrate clothing to reveal the outline of travellers’ bodies, is controversial. The government argues it is an important weapon against crime and terrorism. It also asserts that the technology offers an alternative to a physical pat-down, which many passengers consider to be privacy invasive and objectionable.
Privacy advocates in Canada and around the world, however, have expressed concerns about the scanners . The European Parliament, for example, has directed that a formal study be undertaken into potential health and privacy risks of the technology.
In light of the sensitive nature of the issue, my Office has been scrutinizing the privacy implications of the technology since CATSA first piloted such a scanner in Kelowna, B.C., in 2008. We have remained in close contact with CATSA and Transport Canada officials, to ensure that privacy issues are thoroughly considered in all aspects of the initiative.
When assessing a security measure with a probable impact on privacy, our Office typically applies a four-point test: Is the measure necessary to address a specific risk? Does it work? Is the loss of privacy proportionate to the identified need? And is there a less privacy-invasive way of achieving the same end?
The government has advised us formally that it has credible evidence from intelligence sources that non-metallic threats could endanger travellers through Canadian airports, and that these machines will help detect the threats. The government also asserts that the technology cannot be made more privacy-friendly at this time, because existing software to blur the image of specific body parts would undermine the effectiveness of the technique. In light of the security risks, CATSA argues that the cost to privacy is proportionate and justifiable.
Even so, in acknowledging the sensitivity of the technology, CATSA agreed to use the devices in ways that our Office feels would minimize the intrusion to privacy.
Notably, full-body imaging will serve as a secondary screening tool. It will be used for passengers who have already been through a metal detector and who – either for cause (based on suspicion), or at random – are asked to go through a second security screen.
At that point, passengers will be given a choice: To pass through a full-body scanner or to submit to a manual pat-down. This makes the scanning technology voluntary, which we feel is key to making it acceptable.
CATSA has also agreed to ensure that the process is discreet. As such, the operator who sees the passenger at the screening checkpoint will not see the scan, and the official viewing the scan at a remote location will not see the passenger.
Similarly, the process will be anonymous, so that no personal information, such as the passenger’s name, boarding pass number or passport data, will be associated with the image. Those images, moreover, will be transitory: They will be viewed for concealed threats and immediately deleted. They will not be recorded or transmitted in any way.
Our Office believes these provisions will help address some of the privacy concerns raised by this new security measure. Even so, we have urged CATSA to continue to consider the privacy implications of the technology, and to explore options to further minimize privacy risks for travellers.
We will also continue to monitor the rollout of the initiative to ensure that the scanners are used as promised. If CATSA plans to substantially change the program, our Office would expect to review the proposal again.
We would never stand in the way of measures to enhance the safety of the travelling public. But those measures must be necessary and effective ways to combat a genuine threat. To the extent that the threat response undermines privacy, moreover, we believe it must also be proportionate to the risk. And it should only be considered if no less privacy-invasive alternative exists.
The government assures us that it will take all reasonable steps to safeguard the privacy and personal dignity of travellers through Canadian airports. In an era of pervasive surveillance and an ever-widening array of other security measures, that is a promise the government must not break.