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Canada’s no-fly list is in desperate need of some innovation

Stephen Evans has been a senior digital technology leader for over 20 years at companies such as Kijiji, Microsoft and the Toronto Star

My unintentional introduction to Canada's no-fly list came in the fall of 2015, as I innocently tried to check-in online for my Air Canada flight to Amsterdam. "Sorry," it said to me. "We are unable to process your request at this time." So, I went to the airport and did a manual check-in and wondered what went wrong.

This pattern repeated itself on flight after flight during the following months. As a frequent business traveller who had already clocked more than 80,000 kilometres that year, being able to check-in efficiently ahead of time was important to me and I was puzzled about what was going on.

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Eventually, I found a sympathetic check-in agent who, when I shared my frustration, nodded knowingly and suggested I might want to get myself a Nexus card. This triggered the idea in my mind that I must be on some sort of security-related list.

Many Google and Twitter searches later, I was able to connect with No Fly List Kids, a dedicated group of parents whose Canadian-born children, as young as infants, have been directly affected by this list. What I learned from them was shocking: Every day at airports across Canada, people are seeing their mobility rights often delayed simply because their name happens to match someone else's name on the list.

Even more seriously, what could happen to Canadian business leaders and chief executives who travel abroad when foreign governments and airlines are receiving false information?

This isn't just bad for Canada's national security and undermining the integrity of our intelligence with our allies. This is bad for Canadian business. The Globe and Mail rightly condemned this issue nearly two years ago.

There is no information to uniquely identify a person, and there is no redress system for those who are falsely flagged on it. Curiously, any Canadian who has been falsely flagged on a U.S.-based no-fly list has access to a U.S.-based Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, otherwise known as DHS TRIP. As Canadians, however, none of us have access to a similar program in Canada when identified as a "false positive." From a business perspective, this is mind-boggling.

Canada's no-fly list is so fundamentally flawed even TechCrunch criticized it last year.

If you share a name with someone on the list, you're flagged. It makes no difference how old you are, where you live, what your gender is or other details. This list was created without any personally identifying information connected to the names. So, apparently, there is a presumably suspicious person named Stephen Evans out there and I happen to share their name. And if your name is Bill Graham or David Smith then you're also out of luck, so it's pretty clear this issue impacts all Canadians.

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It is ironic that something as simple as correctly identifying a human at an airport gate seems so challenging. Our government has been working hard to invest in and position Canada as a technology leader and innovation centre. Programs such as the Start-up Visa Program and the Innovation Superclusters Initiative demonstrate how serious the government is about creating an environment where technology and innovation thrive.

However, Canada can only truly claim to be a technology leader in the world economy if we get the basics right – and using technology to strike the right balance between security and human rights is very much one of the basics.

The solution to this problem is not terribly complex. We already know how to identify individuals in Canada. We can use passport or social insurance numbers, for example, as unique identifiers. This information could be added to the no-fly list and passengers checking in and boarding airplanes could be cross-referenced against identifying information. No doubt there is a cost to making these modifications, but the benefit to Canadian citizens would far outweigh this cost.

There is a need for a robust and reliable national-security system but this system shouldn't be borne at the expense of the liberties of hundreds of innocent Canadian children and thousands of adults. We have seen the awful cost of mistakes such as this in the past and we should not be willing to risk having this happen again. The only way to do this is to ensure funding is provided to Public Safety in the 2018 Federal Budget.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said passengers are denied their ability to board their flight simply because their name happens to match someone else's name on the list. In fact, generally, they are delayed but not denied.
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