Airport Screening and Surveillance in Canada

The responses to 9/11 in Canada confirm the existence of certain significant social, political, economic, and cultural trends.


Apart from short-term responses to some notorious hijackings over the past 30 years, airport security was never a topic that engaged the public imagination in Canada (or elsewhere, for that matter). The aftermath of 9/11 changed that, such that on almost any given day one can find some reference to new measures in the daily newspaper. But public perceptions are not the whole story. It is important to place the post-9/11 developments in a broader frame and to see them as part of a long-term trend and against the background of the emergence of asurveillance society and a safety state. The contributions of history and sociology are needed as never before to help contextualize these crucial developments.

What has occurred in Canada, with respect to the upgrading of security provision, is not unlike what has happened in other parts of theworld. But the geographical proximity of Canada to the United States, and the extent of trading partnerships between the two, does make the Canadian case particularly interesting. The United States has a number of reasons for trying to ensure that Canadian airports are secure, just as it had reasons for wanting Canada to join in closing NorthAmerican airspace on 11 September 2001, following the attacks on NewYork and Washington. So to focus on the Canadian case is to ask whatis happening in one of the United States' geographically closest neighbours, as a case study of the widespread wave effect created by the9/11 attacks.

This article is concerned with three issues: (1) the kinds of airport security that have developed in Canada since 9/11, looking on theone hand at passenger checks through the Passenger Name Record (PNR)program and on the other at the screening now carried out by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA); (2) some key issues raised by these developments; and (3) how these relate to processes that were already in train long before 9/11: the emergence of remote, automated surveillance aimed at pre-empting certain behaviours by sorting between different social groups such that they can be treated differently.

This brief article argues that the post-9/11 upgrading of securityand intensification of surveillance (Ball and Webster 2003) is best understood not merely as a contingent response to a perceived crisis--an unprecedented attack on North American soil--but as a rational expansion of already existing measures, practices, and processes. The basic line of argument is that the responses to 9/11 in Canada, as in the United States but on a smaller scale, confirm the existence of certain significant social, political, economic, and cultural trends toward a "surveillance society" and a "safety state." If this is so, then it is all the more incumbent on analysts and policy makers alike to come to terms with the implications of these trends and to address not only the perceived "crises of security" but also their accompanying legal and cultural ramifications, their modifications to previously accepted practices, and their ethical and political challenges.

Canada against terrorism: 9/11 and after

You do not have to have been flying, as I was, on the morning of 11 September 2001 to appreciate why so much effort has since been expended on attempting to tighten airport security. If airports were apparently so vulnerable as places from which to launch such spectacular attacks, then they seemed like the first priority for new security initiatives. Regardless of how reliable the logic of this conclusion, airports around the world have responded in just this fashion, and Canadian airports are no exception.

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