City’s policy was based on questionable data and failed to respond to customs officers’ concerns that screening was too restrictive
Canada’s auditor general has harshly criticized a much-publicised low-risk system that uses ad-hoc counter-terrorism cooperation to demand that passengers register their citizenship and nationalities at the country’s six busiest airports.
The process, which is called COVID-19 and administers and monitors the national security certificates system (CAC), was not evaluated under federal law and was based on “lack of information available about its effectiveness”, according to the annual report by the auditor general, Michael Ferguson.
COVID-19 is a border security programme established by the British Columbia government in 1998 to ensure its citizens do not pose a security risk. The first 10 years were funded through grants and until 2006 the U.S. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) continued to play a central role.
Since 2006, the role of START has been taken over by the RCMP. This year, the scheme ran into some turbulence after leading airline union Travel Canada threatened legal action against the Canadian government for breach of privacy. But last month Canada’s immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, pledged a review into COVID-19 as the controversy reached a climax with that threatened legal action.
Customs officials warned airport staff about COVID-19 in 2012, but it was not until 2014 that PASSC, the BCSPCA, the BC district court and the federal government all raised concerns.
COVID-19 was given legislative oversight in 2016. Since that year, the federal government has refused to make public key information about COVID-19 and the amount of government money spent on it.
The contract to administer COVID-19 was terminated by the BCSPCA in 2017, and the contract for running the “alerts hub” at the Vancouver airport has since been handed over to Passport Canada.
The auditor general’s report found that PASSC had overstepped its authority by refusing “to examine violations of CBSA standards or act to correct CSIS’s or CBSA’s deficiencies”.
The report, which has been heavily redacted before being published in Canada’s National Post, concluded that PASSC spent more than 50% of its $33m budget in the first three years on internal costs like travel and refreshments and travel not related to COVID-19.
The auditor general went on to describe a system that had, “failed to effectively respond to the concerns of CBSA officials regarding the effectiveness of its COVID-19 policies and procedures”.
The report concluded that, as of 2014, COVID-19 had not developed a clear strategy to coordinate its efforts across the country, but instead had responded to them as requested, always at CBSA’s request.
COVID-19 was based on ad-hoc data, did not “apply all tools to its use,” did not “monitor its impacts on all its measures” and had problems with confidentiality of passenger information.
“COVID-19 may not have benefited Canadians by meeting their interests on security or information protection,” said the auditor general.
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Canada’s federal privacy commissioner has also put the brakes on COVID-19, although the rules around transferring information in the scheme remain the same.
“It’s not that COVID-19 is a failure … it just is not doing what it’s designed to do,” said Greg McNair, a Winnipeg privacy expert and an adjunct professor at the University of Manitoba.
“It’s not using the tools it’s been designed to use to meet its criteria.”
McNair pointed out that COVID-19 required the government to share data with third parties on citizens, which raised safety concerns and could lead to concerns that the information could be misused.
The report found that COVID-19 had provided few opportunities for foreign governments to express their concerns about the regime, such as complaints by foreign governments concerning their nationals.
McNair said that Canada’s attention to COVID-19 was the result of public pressure rather than a carefully considered counter-terrorism strategy.
“The operation of COVID-19 has