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Canada's border agency had thousands of outdated lookout flags in system

OTTAWA - An internal review has revealed that Canada's border agency had more than 19,000 outdated electronic notices warning officers to be on the lookout for suspicious travellers.

The Canada Border Services Agency discovered the old notices earlier this year following the review of approximately 117,000 active lookouts to ensure each contained up-to-date information, says a new federal report.

Accuracy and timeliness are vital because the border agency is supposed to use lookouts to intercept suspected terrorists, organized criminals and others of concern attempting to enter Canada.

An outdated or inaccurate lookout could also mean a traveller is stopped at the border and subjected to unnecessary scrutiny.

The notices are based on intelligence information, past customs seizures, immigration violations and known national security risks.

Last fall, federal auditor general Michael Ferguson found the border agency was not consistently monitoring the results of lookouts and lacked a consistent process for recording the results when someone was intercepted. Ferguson noted the agency had made little progress on its monitoring of immigration lookouts since a 2007 study.

"Given the seriousness of the threats that lookouts are designed to address, even one missed lookout is cause for concern," the auditor general said. "Without relevant performance data, the agency does not have information on whether lookouts are working as intended or how it can improve on results."

The border agency's own study confirmed problems with the lookout system.

In response to a request from the House of Commons standing committee on public accounts, the government recently issued an update on the border agency's efforts to improve the management and effectiveness of the lookouts program.

The report from Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney says the agency has:

— Implemented a new system to record traveller examinations undertaken as a result of a lookout, as well as track, monitor and report on the status of all existing lookouts.

— Introduced new training that stresses the need for solid data, timely maintenance of lookouts and better monitoring and reporting.

— Set up a working group to conduct random reviews of existing lookouts

— Carried out the review, completed in March, that determined more than 19,000 lookouts were "no longer warranted."

The agency also made a number of changes to its computer systems to make it easier to find possible matches associated with a lookout and to provide partners with more timely information.

In his fall report, Ferguson also expressed concerns about information the border agency receives from airlines with the aim of zeroing in on suspected security threats.

Air carriers are required to provide the border agency with advance information about passengers entering Canada to allow for screening of travellers before they arrive. Complete and accurate information helps the agency identify people who might need closer examination once their plane lands.

Ferguson found the border agency did not receive all of the necessary information about passengers, and recommended it take steps already developed to fix the problems.

The newly issued government report says the border agency is working with the airline industry to sort out the issues. Together they are working to better track air carriers' compliance with the rules and make sure complete information about passengers is sent to the border agency.

Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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