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Expanding Surveillance Borders in Canada

A recently announced 700-kilometer surveillance fence is the latest development in a new era of border security in Canada. Assistant Commissioner of the RCMP Joe Oliver was quoted as saying that border surveillance technology is currently used on a limited scale in Canada, but “nothing in terms of the scale of this project”. [1] Through a combination of human agents and electronic surveillance technology, the area between Oakville, Ontario and the Quebec/Maine border will be secured. The RCMP will use a variety of surveillance technologies including ‘ground sensors, cameras, radar and licence plate readers’. [2] While the primary concern for the project is presented as criminal activity associated with illegal goods, the possibility of apprehending terrorists is given special mention. However, further research into the history of this project shows the actual effect is largely centered on immigration.

            Border security in Canada is primarily accomplished through a partnership between the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), with additional collaboration with U.S. agencies. In recent years, the RCMP, CBSA and Sûreté du Québec collaborated on a pilot project under the name CONCEPT, which set the objective of “enhancing border integrity through intelligence-led law enforcement”. [3] The project covered a 140 km stretch of the Canada-US border in Québec. The pilot project focused on vast tracts of borderland that exist between major points of entry. Two of the strategic elements in the pilot project were the deployment of technology and inter-agency coordination, both of which will be expanded in the new initiative.

            In the final report on project CONCEPT, technology is identified as a key element to success with particular emphasis on surveillance camera networks and remote sensors. The value of the surveillance technology is framed in terms of automation and advanced awareness of activity, which reduced response times and increased the probability of intervention. It was also noted that there was an “increase in arrests related to illegal entries” [4] in areas west and east of the project domain. However, the report stopped short of attributing these increases to the pilot project.  

            The recommendations of the final report include an expansion of the domain covered by surveillance operations and an intensification of the use of surveillance technology. It is also suggested that collaboration be increased between Canadian agencies, as well as between Canadian agencies and those operating in the U.S. This level of collaboration has been managed through Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETs) since the 1990s. Given this history it is not surprising that Assistant Commissioner Oliver indicated U.S. agencies could eventually be involved in operations related to the new surveillance fence.

            There are many surveillance trends reflected in the continuation and expansion of project CONCEPT. First, surveillance practices are becoming a regular response to security concerns, which are increasingly framed in terms of risk management.[5] Second, surveillance technology is increasingly embedded in everyday environments.[6] Surveillance cameras, motion sensors and automated license plate recognition are some of the technologies used by the RCMP for border security between POEs. These technologies point to a third trend in surveillance: automation. Surveillance is increasingly automated by information communication technology, and decision-making is increasingly delegated to algorithms. This reduces the space for human discernment about the appropriate action to take in response to a given event.  Moreover, the use of remote surveillance technology also expands control of borders to include space that is nearby and illustrates how borders can be secured through the ‘projection of power’. [7] This produces new geographies of surveillance, control and power in relation to borders.

            The new surveillance fence is clearly framed as an attempt to reduce cross border criminal activity and to improve national security by preventing terrorists from entering Canada. Both are worthy goals, but it remains to be seen if these technologies are effective. It is interesting to note that project CONCEPT was launched with the objective of reducing cross border criminality, primarily in terms of the movement of illegal goods. However, of the 160 arrests made under project CONCEPT, 108 individuals were attempting to migrate illegally and claimed refugee status when detained.[8] Thus, the primary outcome of project CONCEPT was the arrest of individuals attempting to immigrate to Canada by claiming refugee status. This provides additional consideration for the future involvement of U.S. forces in patrolling the border with Canada, as indicated by both the RCMP and the U.S. government. As of November 2014, the U.S. government is patrolling nearly half of the border it shares with Mexico using surveillance drones, with a focus on spaces between POEs. [9] Operation “change detection” looks for changes in terrain that could be caused by illegal entry, and will be expanded to include patrols of the Canadian border by 2015. Thus, while the RCMP indicated there are no plans for using drones in the new surveillance fence at the moment, the Canadian border will in fact be patrolled by them in the near future..

These developments suggest that increased surveillance is focused on ensuring borders are open for the cross border movement of individuals engaged in legitimate business activity, but closed to the flow of individuals seeking safety. Moreover, it raises a question about the claims made by Assistant Commissioner Oliver: to what extent will the new surveillance fence reduce cross border criminality and capture suspected terrorists? If the results of project CONCEPT and the objectives of operation ‘change detection’ are any indication, the new surveillance fence will primarily increase the number of people arrested while seeking political asylum. This points to the ‘unintended’[10] consequences associated with the introduction of new technology for security purposes. Moreover, it suggests careful thought should be given to the potential emergence of additional, unintended consequences particularly with the intention of the U.S. to patrol the Canadian border with surveillance drones in the near future. 

[1]MacLeod, “RCMP Reveals Details of Its $92-Million Plan to Erect a 700-Kilometre Surveillance Fence along the Canada-U.S. Border.”


[3]RCMP, Pilot Project CONCEPT Horizontal Evaluation Report.


[5]Bennett et al., Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada.


[7]Adey, “Borders, Identification and Surveillance.”

[8]RCMP, Pilot Project CONCEPT Horizontal Evaluation Report.

[9]Spagat and Skoloff, “AP Exclusive.”

[10]Byrne, “The Best Laid Plans.”


Adey, Peter. “Borders, Identification and Surveillance.” In Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies, edited by Kirstie Ball, Kevin Haggerty, and David Lyon, 193–200. Oxon: Routledge, 2012.

Bennett, Colin J, Kevin Haggerty, David Lyon, and Valerie Steeves. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Edmonton, Canada: Athabasca University, 2014.

Byrne, James M. “The Best Laid Plans: An Assessment of the Varied Consequences of New Technologies for Crime and Social Control.” Federal Probation 72, no. 3 (December 2008): 10–21.

MacLeod, Ian. “RCMP Reveals Details of Its $92-Million Plan to Erect a 700-Kilometre Surveillance Fence along the Canada-U.S. Border.” National Post, November 4, 2014. http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/11/04/rcmp-reveals-details-of-its-92-m....

RCMP. Pilot Project CONCEPT Horizontal Evaluation Report. Ottawa, Canada: Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 2012. http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/aud-ver/reports-rapports/ppconcept-eval-eng.htm.

Spagat, Elliot, and Brian Skoloff. “AP Exclusive: Drones Patrol Half of Mexico Border.” The Big Story, November 13, 2014. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/8015402c7480430badfe47df502eaa19/ap-exclu....

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