Connecting data points: The National Risk Assessment Centre

“It is a massive amount of data to sift through,” Calvin Christiansen acknowledges after surveying a room of targeters, analysts and officers, arranged in ergonomically designed workstations in a secure room that every hour of every day receives streams of information from around the globe. “To be as data rich as we are is a bit overwhelming. But the Canadian Border Services Agency has made a lot of smart investments in how we deal with this data. Before, we had boxes full of paper at various places all over the country and it was difficult to put together a picture.”

In the days following September 11, 2001, border security became of paramount importance. Billions of dollars of goods and millions of people entered the country each year, yet Canada had at best an incomplete understanding of their true origins. Ideas to improve that picture were discussed prior to 9/11; the shock of that event accelerated many of them.

Before the year was up, Canada and the United States had signed the Smart Border Declaration, a 32-point action plan to, among other objectives, extend the border, establishing a virtual border at the point of departure for goods and people – Canadian points of entry would become the last rather than first line of defence.

Two years later, in late 2003, the government announced the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), a new organization integral to its forthcoming National Security Policy to integrate the expertise of the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA), Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

Under the umbrella of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, the CBSA combined functions – the customs program from CCRA; the intelligence, interdiction and enforcement program, and the immigration program at ports of entry from CIC; and the import inspection program from CFIA – to better manage and monitor the movement of people and goods across the border.

“We like to think of CBSA as having a multiple border strategy, pushing the borders out beyond the traditional borders as we’ve thought of them,” says Christiansen, director of the National Risk Assessment Centre (NRAC), a 24-7 operation housed in a nondescript building in an Ottawa business park that gathers and analyzes data on passengers and goods destined for Canada, and when necessary coordinates efforts for the arrest of individuals who have outstanding arrest warrants, are deemed illegal aliens or are in violation of deportation orders.

Like the CBSA itself, NRAC was a creation of departmental mergers. The goal of advanced passenger screening – receiving passenger data from all international flights on departure for Canada – presented an enormous challenge. With 45,000 international arrivals every day, the volume of personal data was staggering. Neither CCRA nor CIC, the two departments responsible for customs and immigration, could manage the data – and both independently pitched the idea of an assessment centre.

“That data was the main driver for forming NRAC,” Christiansen says. “When the legislation went through, CCRA had to figure out how to deal with it – was it appropriate for us to have all of this personal data? How would we receive it from the airlines? What would we look at? And how would we manage and store it? We did a privacy impact assessment for the office of the privacy commissioner, but we knew we needed a way to deal with this data.”

The proposal to create NRAC was not without its critics. Commentators and politicians alike raised the spectre of Big Brother. An agreement was reached with the privacy commissioner to restrict what analysts could view, blacking out certain fields on their screens. The agreement also placed restrictions on user profiles, limiting what “different users can look at over different periods of time,” Christiansen says. “We had to be aware of the public concern about this massive database of personal information, so we adopted a phased in approach that has only been at full steam over the last eight months.”

The restrictions mean that while CBSA can provide certain information to CSIS or the RCMP, neither agency has direct access to the data. “If we need to deal with them on an issue, such as someone that is high risk, there are agreements in place,” he notes. “The information is passed onto our CBSA intelligence arm that then deals with the respective agencies.”

NRAC relies on what Christiansen calls a ‘layered approach’ to weed out dangerous passengers, and while he won’t disclose the number of high-risk ones the agency identifies, he says the numbers can fluctuate dramatically, an experience he equates to his years as a Customs official. There were days at border crossings when “all of a sudden the parking lot was full. You’d think, ‘where did they all come from and why does every single one look like a bad person today?’”

Commercial screening
With as many as 8,000 Canada-bound containers departing from hundreds of ports worldwide each day, analyzing the flood of commercial data has been equally challenging.

As of April 2004, all shippers are required to submit 24 hours before departure data on containers destined for Canada. That notice allows NRAC to assess each container, and when suspicion arises, coordinate through the CBSA intelligence directorate with local authorities to examine the container. “If we’re concerned that the quality of the data isn’t there to make a decision, we issue what’s called a Do Not Load notice to the shipping line, and we’ll ask for better or more data.”

While illegal goods of all sorts pass through the world’s ports, NRAC’s focus is on those “that cause grievous harm,” Christiansen says. “We’re looking for the big ones – chemical, biological, nuclear, radiation and explosives. We’ll flag things that might be of interest to the port authority, and things like mis-described goods or narcotics are flagged to be examined at the point of entry.”

Model program
Relationships with US counterparts have always been strong, though, as with Canada, amalgamation has combined immigration and customs functions under the auspices of one central department, Homeland Security. Christiansen expects greater global cooperation as Australia, New Zealand and the UK create or expand the scope of similar assessment centres. “We have met between the five countries to figure out if there are better ways to progress. We haven’t struck a relationship like what we have with the US, but there is some good potential there.”

NRAC, however, has attracted international attention and could become a global model. Today, with access to advanced data, it has identified high-risk travellers that might not have been identified five years ago. “They might have been caught by the officer at the primary or the secondary line, but we can now identify them ahead of the game,” he says.

NRAC’s greatest success – and its lesson to others – may not be the numbers of goods or individuals it flags, but the picture it now holds – a more complete understanding of the patterns of high-risk passengers and the origin of dangerous goods.

“We have a much better understanding of how goods get to Canada,” he acknowledges. “We can see where cargo is coming from. With all those boxes of paper, it was very hard to piece together before. The chain would start at the seaport or land border or airport. We now have a much better sense of the trade chain, which countries goods passed through. We also understand the nature of the risk – be it the importer, the exporter, the shipper, the shipping company, the dock workers or others.”

SIDEBAR

Warrant Response Centre
CBSA issues arrest warrants under the authority of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), and manages that information in the automated Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) system. If an officer gets a hit while checking a name in CPIC, NRAC is notified and will then coordinate the arrest with a “dispatch officer” and the local authority to complete the requirements of the warrant. Warrants with identifiers such as photos are maintained by NRAC.

Previously Deported Persons
The centre ensures files on all people deported are maintained within CPIC. If a deported person reappears in Canada and is arrested, the local authority is notified.

Advanced Passenger Information
On departure for Canada from any foreign location, including the US, all airlines must submit to CBSA a passenger list. While the aircraft is in flight, NRAC personnel review the data for high-risk persons. If anyone is identified, the point of entry is notified.

Advanced Commercial Information
Information on all containers intended for Canada must be submitted to NRAC 24 hours before being loaded on to a vessel in a foreign port. Containers are prioritized into low- and high-risk categories, and any shipment that raises suspicions is held until NRAC can coordinate an inspection through the CBSA intelligence directorate with the port authority or foreign government. NRAC’s primary focus is chemical, biological, nuclear or radioactive materials and explosive devices, but it will halt any container suspected of carry contraband as well as those with insufficient paper work.

Author: Chris Thatcher from the June/July 2006 issue published

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