Toews halts plan to bug airports

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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has put the Canada Border Services Agency’s plan to bug airports and border crossings on hold.

Following a barrage of complaints, Toews announced Tuesday the CBSA will have to complete a privacy impact assessment before it’s allowed to turn on the new audio surveillance equipment it installed in airports across Canada.

The CBSA recently wired the airports in customs-controlled areas as part of a plan to detect and prevent international smuggling efforts.

"It is important for agencies tasked with protecting Canadians to have the right tools to catch smugglers and keep criminals and other unwelcome individuals out of Canada," Toews said in a statement.

"It is equally important that these tools do not infringe on individuals’ privacy in a way that is unjustified or unnecessary to ensure security."

It’s a backpedal from Toews’ comments Monday in the House of Commons, when he appeared to back the electronic eavesdropping.

Chantal Bernier, assistant federal privacy commissioner, said Tuesday that Toews’ about-face on the CBSA plan was "wonderful news."

"It really shows we have a healthy democracy," she said.

Earlier this week, the federal privacy watchdog had publicly raised red flags about the lack of review of the CBSA’s plan to listen in on traveller conversations.

"Any measure that seeks to capture conversations is inherently privacy invasive so you really need to put it through the test," Bernier said.

Her office will study the CBSA’s privacy impact assessment before offering its recommendations on the plan to ensure the bugging plans meet privacy requirements.

Treasury Board directives require that federal agencies and departments assess all new policies that may overstep basic privacy requirements.

The agency manages 119 land-border crossings and operates at 13 international airports. It didn’t return requests for comment before press time.