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Are your rights being violated at the airport?

Canadians enjoy many rights and freedoms, but are these limited in the airport?
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Alexandra Grigorescu, February 17, 2014 10:23:29 AM

Dear reader,

Canadians enjoy a wealth of rights and freedoms—it’s one of the most prized aspects of life in our country. But you might have noticed that in an airport setting, suspicion is the name of the game, and you might feel that rights you enjoy elsewhere on Canadian soil are suspended.

Huffington Post Canada got their hands on complaints sent to the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), which oversees airport security, and the list was colourful. From feeling they’d been lied to about the safety of full-body scanners, to thinking that they’d been racially profiled, to complaints of inappropriate comments – passengers’ dissatisfaction with the security process was clear.

And maybe not without reason. An article in the Telegraph from earlier this year—salaciously titled “Confessions of an airport worker”—revealed that US airport workers regularly targeted passengers based on nationality, and gawked at full-body scanner images.

The main sources of concern for both passengers and government bodies seem to be the methods used to search and inspect passengers, and privacy.

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A 2011 report from the Privacy Commissioner of Canada found that CATSA generally complies with the Privacy Act—with a few exceptions. Passengers found carrying large sums of money had their personal information divulged to the police, travellers’ personal information was casually left in open areas, and a closed-circuit camera (that was later disabled) was found in the full-body screening viewing room.

At the end of last month, CBC reported that the Communications Security Establishment of Canada (CSEC) obtained information collected through cellphones connected to a major Canadian airport’s wireless network. The data was collected over a 2-week period. As Ronald Deibert, director of Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs told Global News, “it’s hard to look at it and not see how it wouldn’t be a violation CSEC’s mandates and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

However, late last week, a CSEC watchdog concluded that “this CSEC activity does not involve ‘mass surveillance’ or tracking of Canadians or persons in Canada,” adding that such action would be illegal.

But it’s not just your privacy that you might feel is being violated in the airport.

In Canada, any airport security you encounter before you board the plane is overseen by CATSA. Although you can expect to be asked to pass through a metal detector and to pass your belongings through X-ray machines, you may also be referred for secondary investigation.

airportkidDenver security officials demonstrate a child-friendly screening program featuring puppets and toys. Kevin Moloney/Getty Images

This can take the form of a physical search. Children and infants can be searched, but if the child is under 15 years of age, both a witness, such as another security officer, and the parent or guardian must be present while the search is being carried out. While physical searches are an unfortunate (and sometimes upsetting) part of air travel, you should know that searches must always be carried out by security officers of the same gender as the passenger, that they must wear gloves, and that you can request the search be carried out in a private room.

But even this can get dicey. British transgender comedian Avery Edison was detained at Pearson for having overstayed a student visa on a previous trip—and she tweeted the entire experience. Her case was then referred to a hearing, but officers were unsure where to hold her because of her transgender status—so unsure, in fact, that she was referred to an all-male prison despite her self-identification as female. She was later transferred to an all-female prison and eventually permitted to return home.

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If you’d rather not be patted down by strangers (and many feel this way), Canadian airports offer the option of full body scanners. Previously, they showed an outline of the person’s body—leading some to dub them “naked” scanners—but last year, new technology was implemented that shows what are essentially “stick figures.” According to CATSA, the image generated by the scanners doesn’t show any identifying features, the passenger’s information is not associated with the image, and it’s immediately deleted after being viewed.

This option is not without its flaws. The scanner works by transmitting low-level radio frequency around the traveller’s body. Although Health Canada deems the amount of RF to be safe (even for pregnant women or those with implants), it might make you squeamish to know that they never actually tested the machines—they just assessed information provided by the manufacturer.

The truth is that, even with these measures in place, ill-intentioned travellers can still slip through. A CATSA spokesperson told us that their screening officers don’t have the authority to arrest, detain or interrogate passengers. CATSA must contact law enforcement (which is usually evident in spades in airports) to deal with passengers they suspect of criminal behavior.

If you feel you’ve been unfairly hassled by airport security, you can call CATSA or report incidents on CATSA’s website. You should know that even in the airport, you’re protected under the Privacy Act, and the Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). Ideally, these two laws should function together to ensure that whatever information is collected about you is accurate and kept private.

According to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s website, they’ve been working for many years to “ensure that security measures at airports and border crossings do not unduly infringe on the privacy of Canadians.” While airport security is hardly most people’s favourite part of air travel, it serves an important purpose—keeping people safe—while also aiming to retain as many of your rights as possible.

Each week, You Ask sends out its writers to tackle your hardest news-related questions. Have one for us? You can submit it through the sidebar on the right. If your inquiry is chosen, we’ll let you know when the answer is posted!

Image: Jeff Topping/Getty Images

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