Security conundrum

  • January 8, 2010
{mosimage}The recent security measures announced by Ottawa may be good and ultimately necessary but they represent a troubling infringement on privacy and should be stalled until they can be brought to Parliament for a full and proper debate.

But that debate is not in the cards. Parliament was prorogued in December and will not resume until March. By then, according to Transport Minister John Baird, travellers in eight Canadian cities could be facing full body screening — virtual strip searches — as scanning machines are installed at airports.

The quarter-million-dollar scanners are one component of new security measures announced in response to the failed terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas, when a Nigerian-born, Al Qaeda-trained bomber tried to ignite a device hidden in his underwear. Baird also announced that Canada will implement a passenger-observation program to detect nervous or unnatural behaviour among airport travellers.

These measures follow new American requirements for intensive screening of travellers from 14 countries deemed to be “state sponsors of terrorism.” The secondary screening — full body pat-downs and searches of hand luggage — will apply to all travellers to the United States. who carry a passport from one of the 14 watch-list nations and apparently includes Canadians who hold dual citizenship or were born abroad. That situation has raised obvious concerns about the potential for racial profiling of Canadian citizens, a situation so far avoided at Canadian airports by forcing all passengers be delayed by secondary screening.

There are compelling arguments that support Canada’s new security protocols. Governments have a duty to citizens to make travel as safe as possible amid limited choices when terrorists are hiding bombs in their shoes and underwear. Additionally, like it or not in Canada we must satisfy the whims of our southern neighbour because our economy and jobs are dependent on an uninterrupted free flow of goods and people across our shared  border.

But that doesn’t mean government should arbitrarily impose measures that whittle away at our privacy and liberty. Parliament must be involved and a public debate should be initiated on matters that go to the heart of our democracy. It’s worth asking if we’re overreacting to the Christmas Day scare that was more a failure of intelligence than airport security. Even under the new measures, a bomber could refuse a body scan and take his chances on a pat-down of his underwear.

Baird said the body scan program was developed in consultation with Canada’s Privacy Commissioner and that people selected for secondary screening can choose between a pat down or body scan. While the government was prudent to consult the Privacy Commissioner and develop measures that, it believes, meet the requirements of the Charter, that is not akin to involving the House of Commons.

This debate belongs in Parliament. Instead, while Parliament is prorogued, a minority government is rushing to market with a sledgehammer solution to a complex problem. Time may prove it is the right solution but it is the wrong approach.

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