Sunday, December 16, 2012

Massive New RCMP Databank to Track Visitors to Canada

(this story originally appeared in the December, 2012 edition of Muslim Link)
By Matthew Behrens

            As major changes to Canada’s immigration system come into effect, one little publicized set of regulations will significantly impact privacy rights and, potentially, the future safety of those who wish to visit this country. Disturbingly, these regulations continue the trend of assigning the  presumption of guilt to anyone from non-European and Muslim-majority countries.
            On December 8, the Canada Gazette published a notice that biometric data (photographs and fingerprints) will soon be required for visitors from a list of some 30 countries, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, territories governed by the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tunisia, Vietnam and Yemen.
            Once the system is set up in the fall of 2013, it will affect as many as 300,000 people annually, impacting Canadian academic institutions, employers of so-called foreign workers, students from overseas, and the Canadian tourism industry. The cost of giving up such personal information will be $85 per person, in addition to a file held by the RCMP for at least 15 years.
            The government argues such measures are necessary to prevent the use of fraudulent documents and, in its standard canard, to maintain national security and the “integrity” of the immigration system. The list of countries was selected by immigration officials with the assistance of CSIS, the RCMP, Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (all agencies with a poor record of safeguarding individuals’ personal information, trading information with torturers, and mistreating members of Canada’s Arabic, South Asian, and Muslim communities).

Palestinians, But Not Israelis
            Notably, the regulations explain “Canadian foreign and trade policy objectives” were considered in creating this list which may explain why major trading partners such as China do not appear. Neither does Israel, whose Mossad agents have a history of using fraudulent Canadian passports to engage in assassination plots.
            Some exceptions are carved out for individuals under the age of 14 or over 79, as well as diplomatic staff and their families, refugee claimants, anyone coming to the Pan-American Games, and members of visiting armed forces.  The regulations claim this program will not affect those applying for permanent resident status, but provide no guarantee that this is where the invasion of privacy ends, for “future steps for broader implementation may be considered at a later date.”
            After two federal judicial inquiries found that the RCMP was complicit in torture for, among other things, improperly sharing information on Canadian citizens that was both false and clearly based on stereotypes arising from racial and religious profiling, critics are concerned about the agencies and countries with whom the Mounties will share this vast trove of new data. The regulations state the Mounties can share with Canadian law enforcement and the United States under a joint Canadian-U.S. declaration, “Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness.” That document states “we intend to work together to establish and verify the identities of travellers and conduct screening at the earliest possible opportunity. We intend to work toward common technical standards for the collection, transmission, and matching of biometrics that enable the sharing of information on travellers in real time.”
            Will the Mounties share personal information with overseas intelligence agencies in home countries that could in turn be used to harass, detain, and interrogate those who have visited Canada? Would questions arise about who was visited while here, the political opinions of individuals befriended in Canada, which mosque one prayed at, what the imam said during Friday prayer, what opponents of the regime may have been saying in Canada, and a host of other fishing expeditions that are not at all unrealistic given the findings of the above-mentioned inquiries?
            The government claims individuals worried about such basic civil liberties issues have no need for concern, as anyone who wants to visit will be informed as to the “potential uses of their personal information.” But how? Will that not be like providing those pages of fine print one sees in a credit card application when one needs a cash advance to cover the rent? Few people who need the credit read the terms and conditions anymore than it is likely that someone desperate to get to Canada will be provided a full tutorial of what the caveats mean, much less an overview of Canada’s history of abusing such provisos.

RCMP Holds Files
             This expanding era of data collection is based on a little-noticed field trial in which the CBSA and RCMP collected biometric data on some 14,000 temporary resident visa, study and work applicants in 2006/07. With the Harper government’s unrelenting rhetoric equating immigrants to Canada with risk and insecurity, it is unsurprising that this program is now on the books.
            “The fingerprints collected abroad would be sent to the RCMP for storage and would be checked against the fingerprint records of refugee claimants, previous deportees, persons with criminal records, and previous temporary resident applicants before a visa decision is made,” the regulations state, adding that since Canada does not currently have a biometric screening system, it will become a target for “bad faith travellers.”
            Bad faith travellers (one wonders, since this is directed at Muslim-majority countries, the extent to which this is an unintended pun) include “failed refugee claimants.” It’s a sweeping generalization that fails to account for the serious decline in acceptance rates that has little to do with the validity of a person’s requirements for asylum and more to do with poor advice, lack of an effective appeal, and increasingly narrow parameters in refugee decisionmaking.

Expanding Surveillance State
            In assuming that Muslim-majority countries produce “bad faith travellers” Canada is consistent with similarly broad targetting directed at these same populations either overseas or domestically. Examples of such profiling include the New York City “create and capture” program, in which police informants would attempt to bait Muslims into making inflammatory statements that could be used to justify future arrests, as well as the annual targetting by Toronto police of over 400,000 people during “non-criminal stops,” at which largely young black and brown-skinned men are asked their names, addresses, where they’re going, and who they’re with, all of which goes into police databanks. These numbers are higher per capita than New York City, and are matched in Ottawa, where racial profiling by police has led to human rights complaints and a new study that will document the ethnicity of those drivers stopped by police. (That study will not include pedestrians or cyclists similarly stopped, and, while likely confirming what most already know, fails to get at the root of the problem.)
            Overseas, Canadian Forces now collect iris scans of individuals they detain or who “act suspiciously,” with the view to supporting the work of other governmental departments. In other words, someone wrongly detained in Afghanistan who later seeks to come to Canada is already red flagged because they had previously been deemed “suspect” or of “bad faith”.  (The U.S. military has over 2 million such scans from Iraq and Afghanistan).
            How lethal does such targetting become? It certainly justifies President Barack Obama’s signing off on drone strikes, allowing him to claim civilian “collateral damage” deaths are so low because, as the New York Times reported May 29, Obama’a policy “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants… unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
            Canada’s improper use of private information has led to overseas detention and torture, and its failure to implement the Arar Inquiry’s recommendations on information sharing – among other necessary safeguards to prevent the kind of guilty-until-proven-innocent logic of racial profiling – does not bode well for those supplying their prints and pictures to a visitor program that, within a decade, will possess over 3 million files.

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