Critics of ramped-up security wonder where it will end

Toronto Star

Stephanie DiGiuseppe may be one of the luckier travellers to pass through airport security in recent years.

The 25-year-old Toronto woman has no horror stories involving pat-downs or the soon-to-be ubiquitous full-body scanners. In fact, she can’t even recall having the guards rummage through her luggage.

Nonetheless, DiGiuseppe has concerns over what goes on in the narrow security corridor passengers must endure before they board flights.

“There is no place on Canadian soil where individuals have less constitutional protection than at an international airport,” DiGiuseppe wrote in a legal analysis of airport security, detailing how air travellers’ Charter rights are limited in the name of safety.

A traveller cannot refuse to answer a custom officer’s questions. Security personnel don’t require any reasonable ground to root through bags.

“I think, to an extent, it has been taken at a face value (by travellers) because of the post-9/11 hype over airport security,” she said.

But in gritting their teeth and accepting the increasingly more intrusive searches, what have travellers lost?

Since 2001, the government has ratcheted up airport security, beginning with the creation of a new Crown corporation — the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) — to enforce all airport screening. By 2006, every bag that made its way onto a plane was screened for explosives.

Each new terrorist attempt produced new security measures, from having travellers remove their shoes to limiting how much lip gloss, mouthwash and other liquids passengers can carry on planes. But for frequent flyers, airport security evolved from an occasional annoyance to an invasive search this year with the introduction of full-body scanners, a digital strip search that can detect hidden objects.

Since January, the Canadian government has purchased 44 scanners and installed 36 from Vancouver to Moncton. There are plans to buy another 15.

Brian Sodergren, 33, said the decision to install the scanners was rash and overlooked citizens’ privacy rights. From his home in Virginia, he launched the National Opt-Out Day for the day before Thanksgiving, imploring the 1.6 million Americans travelling by air that day to choose the lengthier pat-down over a brief moment in the scanner.

“I don’t think the government should be able to look under your clothes without just cause,” he said. “They’re really violating our privacy rights.”

The thorough pat-down is no less invasive or humiliating, critics charge. In Michigan, a cancer survivor was traumatized after an aggressive search dislodged his urostomy bag, which collects his liquid waste, soaking him in his own urine. Closer to home, a 15-year-old Pickering teen said she was mortified after she was publicly frisked in a Sudbury airport.

Sodergren’s family is abstaining from flying, he said, explaining that they’re not comfortable with their young son going through the procedure.

“You should never have to explain to your children, ‘Remember that no stranger can touch or see your private area, unless it’s a government employee. Then it’s OK.’”

However, the infringement on travellers’ privacy goes beyond the scanners or pat-downs, said Nathalie Des Rosiers of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

In June, the federal government quietly tabled a bill that would give U.S. officials final say over who can board a plane in Canada if they will be flying through American airspace, even if the aircraft isn’t landing stateside. If the bill passes, Canadian passengers’ information would be vetted against the American’s no-fly list. If a name matches, the passenger could be barred from the flight.

“We have given more and more power to security experts to define our civil rights without much accountability and I think that’s the biggest threat,” Des Rosiers said. “It’s covered under national security therefore you can’t know, you can’t debate. You just have to accept and give carte-blanche.”

Without public debate, there’s fear the austere security measures will become not just more intrusive, but prevalent.

“I’m concerned that as they set a new normal, once that’s become normal, they ratchet it up,” said David Fraser, a Halifax-based privacy lawyer. “I don’t think it will be long before you can’t opt out. Then what’s next?”

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