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Specially trained personnel, body scanners to join terrorism fight

A Transportation Security Administration instructor stands in a full-body scanner as security officers learn how to run the device at the Salt Lake City airport in March of 2009.

Stressed, sweaty and nervous travellers will be the focus of security personnel trained to spot suspicious behaviour at Canadian airports, as part of new government measures to combat terrorism.

Transport Minister John Baird announced Tuesday that a passenger behaviour observation program will be developed to screen travellers through Canada's major travel hubs. The new security measures will also involve the purchase of 44 full-body screening machines; with a price tag of $250,000 each, the technology will cost $11-million.

The machines will be installed in airports in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax. A dozen scanners are expected to be delivered by the manufacturer within a week, with the rest to come in six to 10 weeks.

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Mr. Baird said the government is still developing its response to a failed terrorist attack on Christmas Day, in which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly carried explosives onto a U.S.-bound plane after clearing security in both Nigeria and the Netherlands.

"There is no silver bullet in this," Mr. Baird said. "There is a range of options for security."

He did not detail the impact of a new U.S. watch list that singles out citizens of 14 nations deemed to be "state sponsors of terror" for heightened security screening. For now, Mr. Baird said that "100 per cent" of Canadian travellers bound for the United States will be subjected to secondary screening.

Canadian officials said they are still waiting for additional information from their American counterparts. But they said they will have to act within the boundaries of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prevents discrimination based on a citizen's country of origin.

"Obviously, if Canadians want to travel, and if others want to travel through Canada into the United States, the U.S. will set the rules. Obviously, we have legal realities and we will be cognizant of that," Mr. Baird said.

In an interview with the CBC, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that Canadians "may arrive at different conclusions" than the Americans on determining security requirements for U.S.-bound travellers.

Other nations have been equally non-committal about implementing new U.S. security directives, which could have dramatic practical implications for international travel.

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Security experts from the European Union will meet in Brussels tomorrow to discuss the introduction of full body scanners at airports across the continent, a move that has previously been scrapped due to privacy concerns. Britain and the Netherlands have said they will introduce scanners, and Germany and Italy support tougher security, but the executive European Commission has insisted that privacy concerns must be answered before changes are made.

Spanish Transport Minister Jose Blanco said his country would not allow scanners until there is EU-wide agreement, and that any new security measures must be "compatible" with the freedom and privacy of individuals.

Mr. Baird said the Canadian government's privacy concerns about the scanners have been addressed. The officials using the machines will not see the actual passengers and will not have any information on their identity. The images created by the machines will be automatically deleted after having been analyzed. And the new measures do not affect Canadians under the age of 18.

But Mr. Baird acknowledged that the new technology will cause additional travel delays.

"The reality of our generation is the fact we have to deal with terrorism," he said. "Safety and security comes number one, but a close second is the customer service that Canadians receive."

At a news conference with Rob Merrifield, Minister of State for Transport, Mr. Baird offered few details about how the new behaviour observation program will impact Canadian travellers.

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"The emphasis is behaviour-based, for example, wearing heavy clothes on a hot day or sweating profusely," read a background document. "Screening officers trained in passenger behaviour observation screening may ask simple questions about the passenger's identity and reasons for travelling to alleviate any security concerns."

The government is aware of companies that offer training in the field of observational screening, but has no price tag to put on the project until it receives responses to its request for proposals.

Observational security units have already been introduced at U.S. airports. The Transportation Security Administration has dubbed the program Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT.

Rafi Ron, the former director of security for the Israeli Airport Authority, said he has spoken to representatives of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority about implementing a program in Canada. He runs a private security company that has trained personnel at airports from Boston to Miami in techniques for screening suspicious behaviour. He said his firm trains everyone from flight attendants to janitors and check-in agents to identify and report such activity.

"Canada has a great opportunity to do it right because it is not directly influenced or obliged by what the TSA is already doing," he said. "It will certainly provide Canadian airports with a layer of security that has not been there before."

But members of federal opposition parties say the new security measures raise enough questions that they should be debated in Parliament, which has been prorogued until early March by Mr. Harper.

Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, a frequent commentator on security measures, said he's concerned about the fact that Canadians will have a choice between going through the scanners or getting an individual pat-down.

"If the pat-down is going to be of any value, are Canadians prepared to have a stranger touch their genitals or touch their breasts?" Mr. Kenny said. "I do not believe they are."

Mr. Baird said that he was at work immediately after the Christmas Day incident, and that he couldn't wait for Parliament to return before taking action.

"The House of Commons does not sit at 4:30 a.m. on December 26," he said.

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About the Authors
Urban affairs reporter

Toronto based writer of all things city related. More

Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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