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Ottawa aims to improve no-fly list data to curb cases of mistaken identity

Six-year-old Syed Adam Ahmed of Markham, Ont., and his father nearly missed an Air Canada flight to Boston after the airline identified the boy as ‘high profile’ and sent him for secondary security screening.


The federal government wants to improve the accuracy of its no-fly list and curb "false positives" by adding addresses, birth dates and social-insurance numbers to the security data it shares with airlines.

Ottawa has been stung by a spate of complaints in recent months from airline passengers, including the parents of young children who have faced problems boarding flights because their names match those of people on the list.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said on Sunday he's committed to improving the reliability of the government's flagging system, which is intended to keep people with terrorist ties from getting on planes.

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"We are looking at all the ways we can make those identification factors more precise so you reduce the number of false positives," Mr. Goodale told CTV's Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife. "Obviously, when that happens for a six-year-old child [it] can be a pretty traumatizing experience for them and their families."

Six-year-old Syed Adam Ahmed of Markham, Ont., was headed to Boston on Dec. 31 with his father for the NHL Winter Classic game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Bruins. The family nearly missed its Air Canada flight after the airline identified the boy as "high profile" and sent him for secondary security screening.

Adam's mother, Khadija Cajee, said she welcomes the minister's comments, which echo commitments Mr. Goodale made to her in a recent e-mail. But she still worries because her son and other children mistaken for individuals on the list still have no formal way to clear their records. That means they could face a lifetime of chronic travel problems, including the inability to check-in online and the ever-present threat of intrusive airport security checks.

"None of these changes have been implemented yet," Ms. Cajee said in a telephone interview. "Until we have some guarantee of the types of changes that will be made, I can't really say if it goes far enough."

Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Mr. Goodale, said the changes could take time, in part because there are privacy implications to revealing more information to airlines about people on the no-fly list.

"It just takes time to think that all through," Mr. Bardsley explained. "It will take a bit of time."

Ms. Cajee pointed out that only people who have been denied boarding can clear their names. "We would like to see redress available to all Canadians who may accidentally find themselves on that list," she added.

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Ms. Cajee is the unofficial spokeswoman for more than 20 families with children who have encountered similar security problems.

Ms. Cajee said her son, like many other Canadians mistakenly flagged, has never actually been denied boarding, although he faces a host of travel hassles. She said Adam and his family will test the system again when they attempt to fly to Edmonton in the next few weeks.

"We're adding the stigma and criminalizing these children for having a name that matches. It just makes no sense," she said.

In his e-mail to Ms. Cajee, Mr. Goodale pledged to "get this right," while acknowledging there is no appeal mechanism available to many individuals who are mistaken for people on the list, known officially as the Passenger Protect Program. And he warned her that there are other issues "beyond our control," including other countries such as the United States, which may flag Canadians for scrutiny, even within Canada.

"Other countries, as well as airlines, maintain various security-related lists with different criteria and thresholds, which may result in delays for individuals travelling to, from or even within Canada," Mr. Goodale said in the Feb. 11 e-mail, a copy of which Ms. Cajee shared with The Globe and Mail.

The government recently notified airlines that existing Canadian travel regulations do not require secondary security screening when red flags come up about individuals under the age of 18.

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Mr. Goodale told CTV on Sunday that he's working with Transport Canada on a review of its security screening regime to add more "identifiers" to the list. "Right now, all you get on the screen is a name, and that doesn't carry with it an address, a [social-insurance number] or individual pin identifier or a date of birth," Mr. Goodale said.

In addition, Mr. Goodale acknowledged that there should be a better appeal process for individuals who wrongly end up on the list. "All of that needs to be done," he told CTV.

Also on Sunday, Mr. Goodale said he's working to draft legislation before the summer to create Parliamentary oversight of the government's spy and intelligence operations. "It is a system that works in virtually every other jurisdiction in the Western world and we need to have it in Canada," he said.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More


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