Can travellers trust Canada's new trusted traveller system?

Passengers move through Transportation Security Administration screening points and from terminal to terminal at Ronald Reagan National Airport May 27, 2016 in Arlington, VA.

“As border crossing innovations go, this one is not as Orwellian as others.”

While some experts have cited concerns about Canada’s new trusted traveller app, honing in on the possible socio-economic implications of a two-tiered travel system, Toronto-based immigration lawyer Joel Sandaluk says he greeted news of the pilot with a shrug.

The federal government announced the pilot program during the World Economic Forum in January. It’s a border security app that will allow smartphones to catalog detailed information about travellers and share it with border security agents. Information entered into the system is encrypted and secured using blockchain technology.

The system uses information like travel history, the length of time a traveller normally spends in other countries, proof of employment, and vaccine records to build a profile for each traveller.

Those who meet the criteria of a trusted traveller cross the border via a faster, smoother channel, so the process of clearing customs is streamlined.

“The idea is that those people are essentially pre-screened or pre-approved,” Sandaluk says.

It’s a joint venture between the federal governments of Canada and the Netherlands, and it aims to redirect resources at border crossings from screening people who are established travellers to screening those who aren’t.

“What it’s really about is moving people through borders,” Sandaluk says. “People cross borders at a greater and greater rate, year over year.”

Some organizations have criticized two-tiered travel systems — which separate travellers into different, sometimes slower or faster streams based on a variety of factors — for discriminating against certain demographics.

In a report released in 2015, Human Rights Watch called on China to end its two-tiered travel system, which subjects members of religious or ethnic minorities, such as Tibetan people, to more extensive documentation and scrutiny than other Chinese citizens while travelling.

Sandaluk says he doesn’t believe there’s anything so insidious about the Canadian-Dutch pilot.

“One thing that is pretty Orwellian is all the stories you heard last year about border officers trolling through travellers’ social media profiles,” he says, “in order to look at what they were posting on Twitter or what their Facebook profile said.”

He pointed out while that type of screening profiles travellers based on non-travel related criteria such as online activity, the information the Known Traveller Digital Identity system collects is the same type a traveller would include in a visa application. 

Just like Nexus – sort of

“Something I remember that really struck me when I first heard about this, is that we actually already do have a two-tier travel system in Canada,” Sandaluk says. “And that’s the Nexus system we share with the United States.”

He says like Nexus, the system might have the potential to ease wait times for all travellers, as some leave the regular stream for the faster pre-screened one. He says if there’s a cost associated with entering the system, compared to the cost of travel, it’s not likely to prevent flyers from flying.

“Certain types of people will be eligible for this pre-clearance and it’ll probably be divided along a socio economic spectrum. That being said, it’s almost much like having a passport,” he says.

“Passports are something you have to pay for. You can pay extra to get one faster, you can pay extra to get one that’s valid for longer.”

Sandaluk says he has spotted one possible flaw in the system, which is the main feature that sets it apart from Nexus: its reliance on current smartphone technology. Sandaluk warns building a long-term travel pre-screening program around constantly evolving technology could prove to be “a little bit short-sighted.”

“Smartphones are so much more ubiquitous now than they were seven or eight years ago, and the expectation is that they will continue to be ubiquitous,” he says.

“So the whole plan kind of is dependent on that, and basing this technology on something that was relatively rare even a dozen years ago, can we assume that smartphones will be as ubiquitous even a dozen years from now?”