Canada's border agency pointed to an "increase in employee corruption" as it defended a move to grill its employees on their personal lives, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The federal privacy commissioner had challenged a move by Canada Border Services Agency to quiz employees in sensitive positions, as well as job applicants, on 57 questions, including drug use, weekly alcohol consumption and gambling debts. It was put only into limited circulation for a short time before it raised privacy concerns.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada wrote to the CBSA last November, saying it was concerned about "highly intrusive questions."
The CBSA defended the "integrity questionnaire" for enhanced employee screening, saying corruption was a growing problem. "There is currently an increase in employee corruption," reads an internal 2012 report obtained under Access to Information laws.
It adds that "should this problem of corruption not be mitigated it will cause decreased confidence in the agency by the public [and] put elected officials under the spotlight in a negative way."
The CBSA also outlined other increased security precautions from 2008 onward, including more psychological assessments of employees, and running their names more frequently through Equifax credit checks and RCMP-run police databases, according to records from the correspondence with the privacy commissioner.
Urging that the survey be reconsidered, the privacy watchdog argued that while the border agency had claimed "an increase in infiltration and corruption of CBSA staff," it had failed to "provide any detail or statistics to substantiate this statement."
The internal report does not provide specifics on the CBSA's worries about increased corruption, and a spokesperson for the agency did not directly address the matter when asked in an e-mail. The spokesperson did outline several screening procedures in place at the agency.
And the agency pointed to recent cases of corruption, including that of former airport guard Marilyn Béliveau, who helped the Montreal Mafia smuggle drugs before she was sentenced to two years in prison in 2011.
Ultimately, the CBSA rolled back its plans for widespread use of the questionnaire and now says the form is only used as a guide during job applicant interviews.
According to the November, 2012 Office of the Privacy Commissioner criticisms, the CBSA questionnaire had verged on asking employees to incriminate themselves – and, potentially, their friends and family. "Applicants are asked to provide details regarding any friends or family with whom they associate who use drugs … or against whom they have committed domestic violence," the watchdog agency wrote.
The border agency's main work is to keep illicit goods and dangerous people from entering Canada, and some of its officials also play important roles in keeping terrorism suspects off of jetliners, and ensuring that contraband goods never reach rogue states such as Iran.
Over the past decade, CBSA border guards have been given permission to carry guns. They've also been given more access to databases logging the movements of people and goods. Such developments have spurred the agency to take more steps to ensure employees are trustworthy.
Other federal employees do have their personal lives closely scrutinized. Recruits to the RCMP or CSIS, for example, must face probing questions, and bureaucrats consent to detailed background checks during bids for top-secret clearance.
The privacy watchdog argued that potential leaks of CBSA questionnaire information could have dire consequences – especially since the agency had not figured out how it would properly safeguard the forms once they were collected.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner also questioned the need to quiz employees in less sensitive positions. "Questions regarding weekly alcohol consumption … and listing all major life events which have occurred in the past five years, including deaths, divorce, and lottery wins, may all result in a high volume of information not pertinent to identifying security risks or assessing integrity," the watchdog wrote.