With the so-called “Three Amigos” meeting in Washington, Ottawa’s privacy czar is expressing fears that unmanned aircraft could soon be peering down onto all three countries in North America.
“I think Canadians should be concerned about the increasing use of drones,” Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart told The Globe and Mail in an interview Monday.
“… It's another technology that has the potential to be very privacy invasive. These drones could be going back and forth across the border and no one would notice.”
Ms. Stoddart made the remarks as she and her 13 counterparts in Canada's provinces and territories released a joint statement urging the Conservative government to be more mindful of privacy rights as Ottawa and Washington firm up the language of the Beyond Borders agreement.
“I think this is really one of the big new implications in enhanced border security – the constant surveillance of our borders by drones or other unmanned vehicles,” Ms. Stoddart added.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who met Monday with Mexican President Felipe Calderon at the White House, announced the Beyond the Border plan last December. Now, officials in Ottawa and Washington are hoping to hammer out the fine-print details – including language on privacy-protection principles – by the end of May.
The overarching goal is to create a common security perimeter around Canada and the United States through shared intelligence and policing programs, initiatives that should curb Washington's fears of cross-border terrorism and help meet both countries' need for bilateral trade.
But Ms. Stoddart and her provincial counterparts are worried that the security perimeter could eat away at civil liberties.
There are few more glaring symbols of growing U.S. government surveillance power than the Predator drones that are migrating from foreign war zones to become unarmed eyes in the sky for domestic police and border guards.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security flies some drones over American air space along remote patches of the Canada-U.S. border – including one that stopped suspected cattle rustlers in North Dakota last year
And last month, it was widely reported that U.S. drones were being secretly dispatched to Mexico to assist that country's efforts to curb a bloody drug war that's claimed thousands of lives.
Ottawa has been less eager to embrace drones for surveillance on civilians.
The Canadian Forces use some unmanned planes in foreign war zones and to patrol the coast and some domestic police forces have recently purchased “micro-drones” to help gather evidence at crime scenes.
But unlike their U.S. counterparts, Canada's border guards are not known to be using any drones to keep an eye on land crossings. Should they start, or team up with U.S. border guards to do so, such measures could raise a litany of privacy questions.
“I haven't heard nor has my staff heard that the Canada Border Service Agency has drones,” Ms. Stoddart said. “… But it’s a coming technology.”
Hammering out the right regulatory framework is key, she said, adding that her office is being consulted with “increased cadence” by federal officials as they try to firm up the Beyond the Border agreement .
Ms. Stoddart said she is also concerned about expanding programs that would allow U.S. police and federal agents to pursue investigations on Canadian soil by teaming up with Canadian counterpart agencies.
Such programs could lead to U.S. intelligence databases being populated with information gathered in Canada. And yet, red-flagged Canadians would have no legal recourse that would allow them to get misleading or wrong information scrubbed out American databases if need be.
“The clock is ticking,” Ms. Stoddart said. “… This is why we are coming out with a statement now because we are concerned about maintaining Canadian privacy standards, about not unnecessarily sending data to the United States.”