New eTA Raises Privacy Concerns

Back in November, Canada’s official privacy watchdog, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, raised worries about a new mini-visa that requires certain visitors to Canada to disclose what may be considered excessive personal information. The Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA), part of Canada’s perimeter security deal with the USA, may require travellers to disclose information about their mental health status and drug use. This article takes a closer look at this program.

Canada’s Electronic Travel Authorization

In late October 2012, the Canadian government announced that it would be implementing the Electronic Travel Authorization system by 2015. The eTA system would apply to travelers who are nationals of visa-exempt countries, excluding the US, arriving in Canada by air. This program is part of the “Beyond the Border” deal that Canada has with the US. However, it is still uncertain what types of information such travelers will need to provide to obtain the eTA. It’s possible they may be asked to provide information about health and criminal activity, as is required by the US.

According to a Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesperson, “We would not be screening travelers against the exact same criteria as the U.S. since the admissibility criteria under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act are different than those of the U.S.’ immigration law… There are no plans to harmonize these admissibility requirements.”

The eTA system is touted as a quick way to scan travelers’ responses and flag individuals who may be inadmissible, such as criminals, failed refugee claimants and those on no-fly lists before they are able to set foot on Canadian soil. Canadians are not required to complete the American equivalent (in place since 2008), and US residents are exempt from completing the eTA in order to visit Canada.

Australia has a similar requirement for its visitors, and this focuses on basic biographical, passport and contact information. However, the US version of the eTA contains a number of questions that could be considered invasive.  For instance, it requires visitors to declare if they have a communicable disease, if they are a drug abuser or addict, or if they have a potentially threatening physical or mental disorder.

Canadian ministers assure the public that Canada’s eTA will be drafted with a “light touch,” and as “user-friendly” as possible. Assistant deputy ministers Les Linklater says that the eTA program can help to save the government a great deal of money, as a single failed asylum claimant can cost Canada up to $30,000 before the individual is deported.

Linklater also anticipates that fewer than two percent of applicants will actually be rejected. This translates into thousands of potential visitors that will require a follow-up interview within two or three days with a visa officer, but he believes that additional resources can be freed up to deal with the need.

OPC’s Response

According to privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, the federal government is responsible for ensuring that the details of the perimeter security deal are lawful and subject to Parliamentary oversight. This means that there should be limitations on the types of questions that can be asked of visitors to Canada, how the information is to be used and the duration that the government can retain the information.

Stoddart commented,

“One of my office’s concerns about the eTA program is its lack of transparency and the degree to which the details of the program are deferred to regulation. Fundamental questions about the eTA program such as which data elements are to be provided to CIC, how this information can be used and how long it is retained are not set out in statute as we believe they should be.

“To a large degree, these matters have been shaped behind closed doors, most notably through arrangements with the U.S. rather than through open and public debate.”


This article takes a look at the Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) program announced by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) in late 2012. The eTA program requires visitors from visa-exempt countries (most Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders) to complete a personal information form on the CIC website before they board a plane. The questionnaire requires travelers to provide sensitive information and the program is being closely monitored by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Canadian Privacy (CIPP/C), a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Enforcement agencies – Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner (I.A.c.i.1.a.)
  • Private/sensitive information (I.B.a.iii.)
  • Data sharing agreements – public sector (III.B.b.i.)
  • Authority to collect – public sector (III.B.c.i.)
  • Privacy implications of service delivery models (III.B.f.)

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