HomeNews1‘Project Quantum’ an unknown AI helping in keeping some people out of Canada

‘Project Quantum’ an unknown AI helping in keeping some people out of Canada

‘Project Quantum’ an unknown AI helping in keeping some people out of Canada

Artificial intelligence is helping authorities keep some people out of Canada.

“Project Quantum,” as it’s been dubbed, is a largely unknown AI-assisted pilot project that’s been undertaken by the Canada Border Services Agency.

It essentially screens air travellers before they take off for Canada. In thousands of cases in recent years, it has led the CBSA to recommend a traveller be stopped before even getting on their flight.

Authorities say the program is meant to flag people who could be a threat to this country.

But just who the government is stopping at international airports — and the criteria used to select them — isn’t clear. That has led critics to question how we know the AI-assisted program is targeting the right people, and that discrimination isn’t somehow baked into its process.

Language on the CBSA’s website also says the program is meant to address the issue of irregular migration. Some are concerned it’s having the effect of making asylum — already restricted under Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. — even harder to gain in this country.

Officials say the pre-departure risk-assessment matches passengers’ personal information from commercial air carriers with pre-established indicators of risk identification models that are designed by border officials.

The risk identification models have been developed, they say, based on passenger information sent from commercial carriers to CBSA.

Between its inception in 2019 and the end of last year, Project Quantum referred 13,863 travellers to its overseas liaison officers for further assessments. In total, CBSA recommended to air carriers that they refuse boarding 6,182 travellers on flights to Canada.

The program comes against the backdrop of increasing constraints on irregular migration to Canada. Earlier this year, Ottawa and Washington expanded a bilateral agreement to deny foreign nationals access to asylum across the entire Canada-U.S. border — not just at the official ports of entry. As a result, the number of irregular migrants to Canada has plummeted.

Given Canada’s unique geography and how it is buffered by the U.S., the new interdiction tool against air travellers further limits asylum seekers’ options.

“The objective of this strategy is to push the border out as far as possible, ideally outside of Canada, to where a person lives,” contends University of New Brunswick law professor Benjamin Perryman, who represents two Hungarian Roma families in fighting the CBSA cancellation of their electronic travel authorizations.

“This new technology comes with substantial risks of human rights violations. We’ve seen that in other areas. When we don’t have transparency and oversight in place, it raises some pretty big concerns.”

The CBSA, established in 2003 as the immigration enforcement arm, is the only public safety department without an outside civilian oversight body, despite the border officers’ power to carry firearms, arrest and detain — authorities similar to those of police officers.

Since being elected in 2015, the Liberal government has promised to establish a watchdog for the CBSA, but a bill has yet to be passed to set up such an infrastructure for accountability.

In an email to the Star, CBSA spokesperson Jacqueline Roby said the pilot program seeks to “detect illicit migration concerns” for air travellers at the earliest point.

“It is a targeting approach, i.e. an operational practice, that supports and guides the CBSA officers to identify high-risk and potential illegal activity,” Roby explained.

Those activities, she added, include terrorism or terror-related crimes, human-smuggling or trafficking and other serious transnational crimes.

However, advocates are concerned that the risk indicators of these models could be rife with unintended biases and that they are being used to detect and interdict undesirable travellers, including prospective asylum seekers in search of protection in Canada.

Based on quantum referral’

Gabor Lukacs, founder and president of Air Passenger Rights, an advocacy group for travellers, says there’s been very little public information about the pilot program. He only came across Project Quantum through a recent court case involving two Roma travellers who were refused boarding an Air Transat flight in London.

Immigration documents showed the couple were flagged “based on quantum referral.”

The two were to visit a family member in Canada, who arrived previously and sought asylum and who is now a permanent resident. Both travellers had their valid electronic travel authorization — an entry requirement for visa-exempt visitors — cancelled as a result.

The case raises questions, in Lukacs view, of whether an ethnic name, such as the Roma’s, or information about connections to a former refugee in Canada, were among the indicators used by the program to flag passengers. The CBSA declined to answer questions about these concerns, saying to do so could compromise the program’s integrity.

“The problem with AI is it has very high potential of unintended racial and ethnic biases. It’s far from clear to me if there’s a proper distinction in the training of this software between refugee claimants and criminals,” he noted.

Lukacs’s concern is partly based on a written presentation in 2017 by the immigration department about the application of advanced and predictive analytics to identify patterns that enable prediction of future behaviours, and how combinations of applicant characteristics correlate with application approvals, refusals and frauds.

“In the future, we aim to predict undesirable behaviours (e.g. criminality or refugee claims),” said the document released in response to an access-to-information request by Perryman.

The border agency would not say whether potential refugees are flagged, but it said Project Quantum is part of its National Targeting Program, which identifies people and goods bound for Canada that may pose a threat to the country’s security and safety.

Assisted by human intelligence, it uses automated advance information sources from carriers and importers to identify those risks.

The number of quantum referrals for assessments has grown with the number of “flights” tested with the modelling — from 18 in 2019 to 32 by February 2022. The border agency would not say if the “flight” refers to route or participating air carrier, but said the pilot project is “ongoing.”

The National Targeting Centre will alert the relevant CBSA liaison officer abroad to assess the referral if a traveller matches the criteria set out in the risk identification models. The officer, if warranted, engages with the air carrier and/or traveller before making a “board” or “no-board” recommendation.

Opened in Ottawa 2012, the targeting centre, among other responsibilities, runs the liaison officer network, which started with more than 60 officers in 40 countries.

Roby declined to reveal how the flights or routes were selected, in what regions the modelling assessment was deployed or what indicators travellers were measured against, saying that “would compromise the integrity of the program.”

Critics call the lack of information and transparency troubling, given the complaints of alleged ethnic profiling against CBSA in recent years, including an ongoing court case by a Hungarian couple, who were denied boarding to visit family members who were former refugees.

“If CBSA considers association with refugees an indicator of the person allegedly intending to do something nefarious like overstaying or worse, that’s in and of itself a problem,” said Lukacs.

“The bigger issue is what data sets and indicators have been used for teaching and training the algorithms to decide who to flag.”

Roby of the CBSA says the agency takes these concerns seriously in developing a new targeting tool to ensure compliance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The Agency works to eliminate any systemic racism or unconscious bias in its operations, its work and policies, which includes addressing instances where racialized Canadians and newcomers have faced additional barriers, and ensuring that minority communities are not subject to unfair treatment,” she said.

Officials must follow strict guidelines to protect the privacy of passengers and crew members and the data is stored in a secure system accessible only by authorized personnel, she added. The use of this data is subject to an audit process and users are liable for any misuse.

However, Project Quantum is not governed by the federal oversight required under the directive on automated decision-making.

The Treasury Board’s “Algorithmic Impact Assessment (AIA) would not apply here. The CBSA relies on the knowledge, training, expertise, and experience of border officers to make the final determination on what or who should be targeted,” Roby explained in an email.

“The CBSA provides advice to an air carrier, however, it is then up to the air carrier to decide whether or not to follow the recommendation.”

The initiative also raises legal questions about Canadian officials’ authority to engage in extraterritorial enforcement and their compliance with the Charter of Rights and international human rights law, said Perryman.

Perryman said he’s open to claims by law enforcement that certain aspects of the CBSA investigation techniques need to be kept confidential to be effective but said there needs to be sufficient transparency and oversight.

“This claim of racial profiling as a legitimate technique is something that we’ve seen police rely on initially in Canada. And when the full spectrum of that racial profiling became public, we decided as a society that it was not a legitimate law enforcement tool,” he said.

“We’ve taken steps to end that type of racial profiling domestically. I’m not completely hostile to that argument, but I think it’s one that has to be approached with some degree of scrutiny and care.”

The border agency said travellers who are refused boarding may file a complaint in writing using the CBSA web form or by mail to its recourse directorate.

Part of this article was reported by The Star