New Canadian Automated Air Screening Could Be Expensive, Difficult, Intrusive

OTTAWA (CP) - An automated system to prevent terrorists and other criminals from boarding Canadian aircraft could cost more than one-quarter of a billion dollars, newly obtained documents show.

The hefty price-tag, myriad logistical headaches and unresolved privacy concerns are among the challenges the federal government faces in building the program to screen air passengers.

The high-tech project, which Ottawa considers an important means of securing the post-9-11 skies, would build on Canada's plan to usher in a no-fly list of prohibited passengers.

Anti-terrorism legislation passed two years ago also gives CSIS and the RCMP access to air passenger information in order to assess threats to airline flights or other aspects of national security.

The overall objective is to help these agencies scrutinize who has purchased a ticket for a flight entering, leaving or flying within Canada so they can stop high-risk passengers from boarding.

The screening would rely on information from the no-fly list and CSIS and RCMP databases, as well as 34 pieces of data about each prospective passenger - ranging from how they paid for their ticket to choice of seat on the aircraft.

The preferred design for the system would cost as much as $270 million, says a feasibility study prepared for the Public Safety Department by IBM Global Services.

''Program costs are a key constraint and a potential barrier to adoption,'' says the study obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Public Safety spokesman Philip McLinton said officials were examining the results. ''As the study is still under review, no firm timelines have been set, nor has final funding been secured.''

The study indicates the cost of obtaining and analysing data could be significant.

Additional RCMP memos disclosed under the access law show the Mounties warned as early as 2004 the project would ''require substantial additional resources from the government to build and maintain a system over the long term.''

The RCMP suggested abandoning plans for the automated system, saying the no-fly list, on-board air marshals adopted after the Sept. 11 attacks and existing intelligence resources may be enough.

There is no evidence the costly system will actually make Canadians safer, said Roch Tasse of the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group.

''The technology is not quite proven,'' he said in an interview. ''There's no assurance that these programs will generate a lot more security.''

The feasibility study identifies several ''key challenges,'' including making sure information about passengers is complete and accurate.

The study notes passenger data collected by the Canada Border Services Agency under a current program sometimes arrives late, is incomplete or even unreadable.

''Air carriers, foreign air carriers in particular, often forget to transmit passenger data in a timely manner if at all, and any attempts to enforce penalties are ignored.''

The study also flags a number of privacy concerns, including the accuracy of personal information provided by air carriers to CSIS and the RCMP, and use and disclosure of the sensitive data.

Information from passports will be a key source for the program. However, the study notes that despite the apparent reliability of travel documents, ''there may be issues with expired passports and the ability to validate passports issued by foreign countries.''

The IBM study notes the use of personal information provided by airlines ''is already a privacy concern'' even though anti-terrorism legislation underpins the planned air screening system.

''Consequently there is a risk that despite the legislation it will be contested and subject to public debate.''

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