12/06/2011 06:33 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2011

Obama-Harper Border Deal Raises Privacy Concerns In Canada

WASHINGTON -- Considering the political obsession within the 2012 Republican presidential field over border security, the announcement of a new initiative to strengthen transnational cooperation ought to be big news. And it likely would be, if the border in question was with Mexico.

But when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with President Obama Wednesday to announce the details of a long-awaited but -- at least in Washington -- little-heralded plan dubbed "Beyond the Border," few outside the Great White North may care. For many Canadians, though, the North American perimeter security agreement to harmonize information sharing in order to ease trade, reduce border bottlenecks, and strengthen law enforcement cooperation is just the latest reason to resent their bigger, more powerful neighbor to the south.

"Canadians are inherently reticent since the Patriot Act about having their government share data on your average citizen with the U.S. government," said Christian Leuprecht, a political scientist at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. Noting that Canada has arrested more people crossing illegally into its territory than the other way around, he said, "There are very different perceptions and priorities on either side of the border."

Laura Dawson, a scholar at the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Canadians still chafe at the stricter, post-9/11 security introduced along the 5,525-mile border that more than 70 million international travelers and 35 million vehicles cross each year.

"Canadians continue to be surprised that they can't go through the border with just a wave and a smile," she said. "They are just beginning to understand that it's not just 'mom and pop from Manitoba,' but that others in the world might misuse Canadian borders or Canadian identification to get at the United States."

Yet heightened security isn't all that has some Canadians down these days. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once famously said, "Living next to the United States is a little like sleeping with an elephant. You always wonder if they will roll over on you."

Trudeau made his remark during the Vietnam War, but the sentiment seems to ring true today. Controversies in the United States have delayed the Canadian-backed Keystone XL oil pipeline project and stalled a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Polls may show that Canadians prefer Obama to their own conservative government under Harper, but many don't appreciate the president's bid to revive Buy America government purchasing rules, or a proposal to charge them a $5.50 "passenger inspection fee" when they cross the border. And many Canadians still remember when U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano mistakenly said that some of the 9/11 hijackers went through their country before launching an attack.

The Canadian media has been filled with stories about the border agreement since Obama and Harper announced it last February. Subtitled "A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness," a detailed version was to have been unveiled by the end of the summer, but was delayed. Leuprecht and others, including Canadian government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to comment, said that Harper insisted on a big splash, but that the White House -- preoccupied with the faltering economy and the president's 2012 campaign -- wanted something more low key. There also were disagreements over immigration, refugee standards and other sensitive issues that were stripped out of the agreement by administration officials less than eager to tackle them in an election year, the officials said.

Not that many on Capitol Hill seem to be all that interested in the deal. One Senate staffer suggested Wednesday's meeting between Harper and Obama would amount to little more than a photo-op, "just filling in the details of the original announcement so it's not a big deal."

But that's not how many Canadians see it. One commentator who supports the deal said it would drive many Canadians "ballistic" and would "play to fears that the conservatives are selling out this country's sovereignty and undermining privacy rights in exchange for some illusory access to American markets."

The agreement would institute a new, integrated entry-exit system that would allow officials on both sides of the border to know in real time who is coming into and out of their countries. It involves the kind of data sharing that has been common since 9/11 between the U.S. and the European Union -- and is just as controversial.

Jennifer Stoddart, Canada's commissioner of privacy, has raised alarms over the agreement. In a report this summer, she doubted Canadians would be "willing to accept a 'leveling down' of their privacy protections simply in pursuit of an enriched perimeter security agenda."

Citing the case of Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian infamously detained while waiting for a connecting flight at JFK International Airport and rendered to Syrian interrogators for nearly a year by the Bush administration, Stoddard noted that Canadian commissions have urged counterterrorism investigators to be more careful before sharing personal information on Canadians to any foreign government. She said that adopting U.S. standards of data protection "would not only offend the value Canadians traditionally place in their privacy but may have the effect of hurting the reputation of Canada abroad as a destination of choice."

Despite assurances from U.S. homeland security officials that protecting privacy is a top priority, a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board recommended by the 9/11 Commission to protect the constitutional rights of Americans remains a hollow shell.

The American Civil Liberties Union and its Canadian counterpart Tuesday released a set of core legal principles they say should govern border policies, including stricter limits on the collection and sharing of personal information between the two countries.

Noting that, "in general Canada's policies are not as bad as our own," the ACLU said the United States should be "improving its own policies -- not forcing them upon our allies, and thereby turning them into international norms, which threatens to entrench sub-par standards and delay the day when wiser heads are able to reform them."