At the Border: A Closer Look at Technology and Initiatives

welcome to Canada sign board
welcome to Canada sign board

Previously, we examined two major issues at the Canadian border: increased asylum claimants and the ever-evolving world of smuggling and piracy. Today, we’ll take a look at what initiatives border security agencies have designed to adapt to these challenges, as well as the technologies they deploy. Our research is based on recent government publications and the efforts of investigative journalists.

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Why is Border Security Important?

Canada’s land border with the United States is 8,891km long, spanning the entire continent. Though the last war along the border was over 200 years ago, America’s vast economic and military power has made maintaining friendly diplomatic relations a key component of Canada’s foreign policy since the time of Confederation. The two nations have traditionally worked together closely on matters of mutual border security.

On a day-to-day basis, this means that Canadian and U.S. border agencies are frequently in contact with one another, coordinating the interception of irregular border-crossers and smuggled contraband. 

Some prominent examples of higher-level initiatives include:

  • The International Boundary Commission (IBC): 

Established in 1925, the IBC is jointly operated by the United States and Canada. It oversees a nine-meter radius along the border by surveying the area, keeping it clear of undergrowth and maintaining monuments and markers [i]

  • The North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD): 

Formed in 1958, NORAD is a cooperative aerospace and maritime warning system intended to alert both nations of incursions [ii]

  • The Combined Defence Plan: 

An agreement under which Canadian and U.S. Armed Forces collaborate on a bilateral defense plan in the event of an attack by a third party. As a Canadian Armed Forces backgrounder notes, the Canadian military is expected to “remain interoperable with the U.S. military; and respond to crises at home and abroad, including by assisting domestic civilian authorities” [iii]

cyber security

What Technologies Do Border Agencies Deploy?

The most significant technological tools used by each agency are computerized databases, which allow border agents to:

  • Record biographical information on travellers.
  • Receive instant notification of red flags, such as arrest warrants or previous deportations.
  • Collect aggregate statistics to improve the efficiency of border services. For example, these statistics can suggest points of entry are becoming “clogged,” which helps administrators identify understaffed posts.

One of the most simple and effective technologies that is used at the border is biometrics. Biometrics consists of methods of identity authentication, which are the processes of determining that the government is transacting with the “same entity iteratively over time.” These methods can take on many forms: from traditional fingerprints and facial scans to more sophisticated measures. 

Additional types of biometrics include voice recognition or a scan of parts of the eye, while behavioral biometrics screen the gait of a person’s walk or ways in which they type on a computer. In addition to enhanced security, modern biometric measures create shorter and faster lines for people in cars that are crossing the border. As the costs of using this technology become more affordable, the Canadian government will use biometrics more frequently over time.

Since 9/11, border agencies have also begun to deploy hidden electronic road sensors along remote stretches of the border to pick out irregular crossings. These sensors can track movement and trigger closed-circuit TV cameras. 

In other areas, surveillance equipment and thermal imaging cameras have also been installed, and the use of drones is becoming more common.[iv] There are even videophones travellers can use to self-report crossing the border to their respective governments.

Canada Visa


U.S Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have created an operation known as preclearance. Preclearance is when CBP law enforcement personnel are stationed within airports throughout Canada to inspect travelers prior to boarding U.S bound flights. 

CBP officers will conduct the same customs inspections they do of international air travelers performed upon arrival in the United States, however they perform these procedures before the departure from the foreign airport. Preclearance operations assist in identifying terrorists, criminals, and other security threats before they are able to board their aircraft and enter into the country.

Trusted Travellers 

While government agents use a variety of methods to secure the border, the Canadian government also implements a system that authorizes some frequent travelers to pass through security with greater ease. Trusted Travellers include members of Global Entry Programs and Nexus. 

This program uses due-diligence procedures to verify that certain passengers do not present a threat to national and international security. Those people who satisfy these requirements are allowed to cross the border without experiencing significant security checks. The net result is a smoother travel experience, streamlined border procedures, and a significant reduction of congestion at ports of entry.

Beyond the Border

In the early part of this decade, Canada and the United States agreed to the new Beyond the Border (BTB) Action Plan, which is intended to enhance the mutual security of both nations in the following four ways:

  • Addressing threats early: Threats are stopped before they arrive either in Canada or in the U.S.
  • Trade facilitation, economic growth, and jobs: Legitimate travel and cargo are stimulated and expedited.
  • Cross-border law enforcement: Criminals are prevented from leveraging the Canada-U.S. border to commit international crimes.
  • Critical infrastructure and cyber security: Canada and the U.S. are prepared for and can respond to threats and emergencies [v].

This last point is particularly significant with the advent of the entry/exit Initiative. Canada has long collected biographic information on all travellers who enter the country but has not historically been able to verify when and where they leave it. The entry/exit initiative means that:

  • Canada and the United States share biographical information collected about third parties entering their borders.
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection informs Canada when Canadian citizens or permanent residents enter America.
  • The Canada Border Services Agency informs the U.S. when American citizens (or permanent residents) enter Canada.

Canada’s border policies have become much more intertwined with those of the United States.

This level of communication closes the knowledge gap and allows both governments to record how long residents have remained outside the country, as well as how long they may have overstayed in each other’s territories. Both governments intend to use the information for security purposes, as well as to reduce instances of fraud, such as those who may be collecting Employment Insurance benefits while not a resident in Canada.

In practice, this means that Canada’s border policies have become much more intertwined with those of the United States, including joint committees for port operations, shared assessments of plants and animals entering from third countries, and a new single privacy statement for information collected at the border.

By collaborating with each other by using safeguard internet-connected systems (e.g. software and data) the US and Canadian government minimize breaches of cybersecurity that threaten their national interests. 

US and Canada flag


The relationship between Canada and the United States’ border security agencies remains fluid and dependent on the state of political relations between each country’s current administration. Given mutual benefits, close economic bonds, and the long history of alliances between both nations, a continued partnership is anticipated in the foreseeable future. 

Students in Laurier’s online Master of Public Safety degree program learn about border strategies as they prepare to become leaders in nationwide security.

To learn more, read our prior blog: Two Rising Issues in Canadian Border Security.



[i]  International Boundary Commission.

[ii] Backgrounder: The Canada-U.S. Defence Relationship.

[iii]   Ibid.

[iv] Wired. “The Invisible Security of Canada’s Seemingly Chill Border.”

[v] Qtd. from Public Safety Canada. Beyond the Border Action Plan - Horizontal Initiative Report 2016-17.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] CBC. Ibid.