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Privacy concerns spur Toews to shelve airport-eavesdropping plan

A passenger waits in a departure lounge at Toronto's Pearson airport in March of 2012.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/j.p. moczulski The Globe and Mail

The federal government has hit the pause button on its plan to eavesdrop at border points amid a brewing storm of privacy concerns.

But there were still more questions than answers Tuesday about the surveillance plan.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said he has told the Canada Border Services Agency to place audio monitoring plans on hold until a study of the privacy implications is complete.

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Some travellers expressed concern about the apparent plan by the federal agency to record conversations at airports and border crossings.

Mr. Toews wants to see a privacy impact assessment by the border agency and recommendations from the federal privacy commissioner before going any further.

"I share the concerns of Canadians regarding the privacy impact of audio recordings, even when it occurs in a restricted area in an airport," Mr. Toews said in the House of Commons during Question Period.

The move came just one day after the minister defended the border agency initiative.

On Tuesday, the NDP accused Mr. Toews of flip-flopping and ignoring safeguards intended to protect the personal information of Canadians.

"Nothing was done to ensure that this project on eavesdropping would respect privacy – absolutely nothing. The minister now acknowledges this fact, and it was really high time," Quebec New Democrat Rosane Dore Lefebvre saud.

She asked Mr. Toews how many conversations had already been recorded without the knowledge of travellers, and how long they would be kept.

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"I'm not aware of any private conversations having been recorded by this measure," Mr. Toews replied.

This appeared to contradict his statement Monday that the border agency "operates customs-controlled areas for screening international travellers arriving at airports across Canada, including monitoring video and audio in order to detect and prevent illegal smuggling."

The privacy rights of law-abiding Canadians are respected at all times, Mr. Toews added.

The minister said Tuesday it is important for agencies to have the right tools to catch smugglers and criminals. It is equally important that these tools do not unduly infringe on individuals' privacy, he added.

The border services agency did not respond to questions.

The Privacy Commissioner's office says it has yet to receive an outline of the border agency's plans for enhanced surveillance.

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