Canada Border Services Agency—Airport Surveillance

Hon. Jim Munson: Speaking of a couple of different decisions with this government, my question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

She reads the Ottawa Citizen, obviously, because she lives in Ottawa. There were two different headlines this week from one of her favourite newspapers: “Ottawa airport wired with microphones as Border Services prepares to record travellers’ conversations.”

An Hon. Senator: Big Brother is watching.

Senator Munson: It is bigger than Big Brother.

Then, my goodness, two or three days later: “Toews orders halt to airport eavesdropping.”

The Citizen reported that the CBSA, the airport and all those people in there looking out for us secretly outfitted the place with microphones to eavesdrop on travellers’ and employees’ conversations.

Once the recordings began, the travellers would have had to visit the Canada Border Services Agency website or a telephone “help line” to learn how the recordings would be used and how long they would be kept. You are in that line, going through the airport, talking about things, just to make sure that your private conversations were not ones that were going to do something awful at the airport.

Even the union representing the Canada Border Services Agency employees was unaware of the installation of this equipment. It was all happening until the Ottawa Citizen began making inquiries about the matter last week.

This is not transparency. Had the Ottawa Citizen not broken the story, when would the government have informed Canadians about its intentions to eavesdrop on their conversations at the Ottawa airport and every airport in this country?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): I do not read the Ottawa Citizen. I cancelled my subscription some months ago. I have better things do with my mornings than read the Ottawa Citizen.

Obviously, honourable senators, we have great concerns, as do Canadians, regarding the privacy impact of this practice of the Canada Border Services Agency. As Minister Toews said Monday, we welcome the Privacy Commissioner’s study of this policy. Minister Toews, as the honourable senator correctly pointed out, has directed the CBSA to halt audio monitoring until a privacy impact assessment can be submitted and recommendations can be reviewed by the government.

Obviously, privacy issues are of great concern to everyone, or should be. This was the proper decision, and we welcome the actions of the Privacy Commissioner.

Senator Munson: Honourable senators, who is on first in the Prime Minister’s office? Who is on first in Minister Toews’ office? Does a light not go on at the very beginning of the process about this privacy impact assessment, which allows the office of the Privacy Commissioner to review and make recommendations? Had anyone in this government thought about that before these audio devices were being installed?

Why would the government proceed with the installation of this equipment prior to the completion of a privacy impact assessment as required by the Treasury Board? Here we had the minister, after this story broke, standing up in Question Period saying the privacy rights of law-abiding Canadians are respected at all times; then he backtracks. Why does that have to happen?

Senator LeBreton: I do not think he backtracked at all. All agencies of government, especially the Canada Border Services Agency, are tasked with protecting Canadians, and, of course, they obviously have to have the right tools to catch smugglers, other criminals and undesirables we wish to keep out of Canada. It is equally important that these tools do not infringe upon the privacy rights of individual Canadians. As Minister Toews said, privacy issues are of paramount concern, and that is why we welcome the work of the Privacy Commissioner and her looking into this area.

Having said that, I do not think Minister Toews was saying anything other than the truth. Privacy rights are paramount.