Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No-fly list poses risks

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Canada's no-fly list, officially known as the Passenger Protection Program, doesn't seem to have caused a lot of uproar with the travelling public since it was introduced in 2007. In fact, there is only one known incident of a passenger who was refused boarding because he might have terrorist connections, although the validity of the allegation is in dispute.

It's possible other people have been turned away at airports because their names were on the Canadian list, but Public Safety Canada, which took over management of the no-fly list from Transport Canada earlier this year, hasn't provided much information on the program. In fact, it won't even say how many names are on the list, which some estimates have pegged at between 500 and 2,000 individuals. That's a lot of potential threats for a country like Canada, assuming they are valid.

The idea of such a program was unavoidable following the events of 9/11 and the escalation in the war against terrorism, but the government had an equal obligation to ensure it did not abuse its authority or the rights of Canadians. At this point, in the absence of fuller disclosure, it's impossible to say if the government is achieving the proper balance between security and democratic rights.

A person's name will end up on the list if they have been identified as being involved with a terrorist group, or if they have been convicted of crimes against aviation security or aviation personnel, the government says. But according to documents obtained under access-to-information laws by Canadian Press, the criteria are much broader. Anyone "who directly associates with" an alleged extremist, for example, could end up on the list. The risk is that an innocent email exchange or telephone call could result in a lifetime airline ban.

Anyone who feels they have been falsely labelled can appeal to the Office of Reconsideration (another name that is unfortunately Orwellian), but it can only issue a recommendation. In the one known case that was appealed, outside investigators determined that the individual did not deserve to be on the list, but the government still refused to remove the name.

So far, the no-fly list has avoided the kind of major foul-ups that have become common in the United States, where children and famous people have been caught up in the government's web, but Ottawa needs to ensure it uses a rigorous process before tagging people as potential threats. Governments generally have poor track records in these matters, as can attest anyone who ended up on the American watch list in the past because of suspected Communist sympathies.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2011 A12

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