False Data Makes Border Screening Corruptible

“Big Brother” system could violate rights of Canada’s visitors

By David South

Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), May 21-27, 1992

New technology that can spew out a person’s life history in less than six seconds is now available to Canada’s customs and immigration officials.

And while Canada customs and immigration officers say this toy is a boon – replacing the need to memorize names of so-called undesirables – civil rights workers and refugee activists point out that the gizmo could have serious consequences, with little recourse.

The technology is called PALS, or primary automated look out system, and is already in operation at airports in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Vancouver.

PALS’ operation is based on the use of computer-readable passports. Canada is one of several countries that have started including computer strips on passports and identity cards. Officers use PALS by either keying in a special number printed on the passport or identity card or using a scanning machine to read the strip.

The system went into effect at Toronto’s Pearson airport on January 20, after a three-year pilot project in Vancouver, adding Canada to the 11 countries that have machine readers for passports. Under the old system, customs officers combined judgement, questioning and the most-wanted list to decide if a passenger required further interrogation and search.

During a demonstration of the system, customs officials at Pearson airport boast about the system’s role in apprehending a drug smuggler in PALS’ first week of operation.

Sinister sign

But to civil libertarians with experience of such systems in other countries, PALS hasa sinister implication. Many say that PALS spews out what is fed into it. And depending on the country involved, what is fed into it may not necessarily be true.

While customs emphasizes PALS’ role in apprehending popular targets like drug smugglers, terrorists and child kidnappers, its reach also includes people who have smuggled in too many cigarettes or bottles of alcohol, convicted criminals who have finished serving their time, immigrants, refugees and a range of petty offenders.

All of these face a second interrogation and detention based on what their governments have decided to incorporate into the computer strip. And it is this that worries civil libertarians and refugee workers.

Consider the case of a legally sponsored Portuguese immigrant who arrived at Pearson just after PALS had been introduced. He was detained based on information stored in PALS. His immigration lawyer Ali Mohideen recalls how the man was held because of a cheque that he bounced in his native Portugal about eight years ago.

Ed Lam, director of research for the Canadian Ethnocultural Council, feels customs and immigration already have “too many powers.” He regularly receives complaints from visible minorities and immigrants who feel they are singled out for harassment at the airport.

“This is big brother. Legal protection is not enough,” he argues. “It leads to costly court battles with the government. I would like to see an ombudsperson or complaints bureau set up. As for refugees turned back at the border, we will never hear from them.”

False data

Other critics, especially those in the US, where a PALS-type system has been in operation for more than a decade, worry that the system will simply accept information given by tyrannical governments.

“It is hard to trace false information to a foreign government,” says Jeanne Woods, legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, which monitors abuse under the United States system.

“People have been accused of being communists or terrorists who have denied it. The El Salvadoran government is one example of a regime which has called prominent human rights activists and lawyers terrorists.”

She would like the Canadian Parliament to pass a law similar to one passed last November in the US requiring the state department to report to Congress when somebody is denied access because they have been called a terrorist, so that the origin of the information can be tracked.

The Canadian database draws its information from several sources, according to customs spokesperson Suzanne Bray. The sources include immigration records and the Police Information Retrieval System, which is a database shared between customs and the RCMP.

Bray refuses to divulge any other sources, citing security, but both RCMP and customs operate their own intelligence services, sharing information with their counterparts all over the world, especially the US. Information is also drawn from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and its sister organizations such as the CIA. However, CSIS spokesperson Ray Boisvert says they have adequate safeguards against false information provided by countries known to be human rights abusers.

“CSIS does look at bias in intelligence reports,” he says.

The US equivalent of PALS has been criticized after several cases of abuse were detected. Gara LaMarche, executive director of the Fund for Free Expression, a project of US-based Human Rights Watch, has documented abuse on political and ideological grounds.

“The US public has a right to hear dissenting views under the first amendment of the Constitution,” he says. “I don’t think improving the technology of border control violates civil liberties, but keeping a massive database of information which includes people’s political associations is bad.”

Similar concerns are expressed by John Tackaberry of Amnesty International in Ottawa, which is only now beginning its own analysis of PALS. “We have concerns over data input, who controls information and basic civil liberties.”

Even as Canadian civil rights activists take stock of PALS, Canada customs is planning to use it to check cross-border shopping by expanding the system to all land entry points.

As for those visitors who feel wronged by PALS, they may have a problem seeking redress from such organizations as the Canadian Human Rights Commission. A spokesperson says the CHRC can only help those who have been admitted to Canada. And visitors turned back at the border are not considered admitted.

Sherry Gerstl, a customs superintendent responsible for the implementation of PALS at Pearson, says that people can also appeal to the Privacy Act to see information that is kept on them. But two fact sheets explaining how this can be done are located in a corner, pretty much out of public view.

Bray acknowledges that “honest” passengers could face the prospect of a search with PALS, but given its positive attributes, she says, passengers involved in such delays should simply “grin and bear it.”