The Financial Post
Friday, February 21, 1997
page 12

Big brother is watching you - if you want

Registering on COSMOS allows Canada's embassies or consulates to keep track of travellers in 110 countries.
by Jill Vardy

OTTAWA -- Canadians have long been considered the nicest tourists. Now they're also the easiest to find, thanks to a sophisticated tracking and communications network in use by Canada's embassies and consulates.

The computerized network, called COSMOS (consular management and operations system), links Canadian embassies and consulates in 110 countries to Foreign Affairs headquarters in Ottawa.

Developed in 1994 with input from consulate staff and the help of Ottawa consulting firm Amita Corp., the system holds in one database information about all registered Canadians abroad, and the traveling conditions of those far-flung locations. Every consulate official has access to the same database and, when a file is updated, the information is instantly available around the world.

Of course, not every Canadian who leaves home shows up on the COSMOS computer network. But anyone who has had business with an embassy or consulate does.

For example, a Hamilton woman recently phoned the Foreign Affairs department in Ottawa to seek help finding her brother. He had been studying in Cambridge, England, but hadn't contacted the family in months.

His name and information were entered into the COSMOS system by Foreign Affairs staff and beamed simultaneously to all 110 locations. Almost immediately, the mystery was solved; just days before, the man had shown up at the Canadian Embassy in Damascus, Syria, looking for a visa.

Some of the Canadians registered in COSMOS do so as a precautionary measure. The ROCA system (registry of Canadians abroad) is a voluntary program that helps keep track of Canadians through COSMOS who may have to be contacted by embassy officials or family members while abroad.

At any time, there are 1.5 million-two million Canadians living or traveling outside Canada. About 150,000 of them are registered through ROCA.

Foreign Affairs encourages everyone traveling abroad for an extended time to sign up. But many Canadians don't.

"For example, we know there are 100,000-plus Canadians in Hong Kong now. But we only have 2,000 of them registered in our system", says Sanjeev Chowdhury, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs.

For those who take advantage of the free service, the benefits are significant. Besides the registry, COSMOS includes a regularly updated travel advisory service that outlines safety tips and conditions in various parts of the world. It keeps data on the location of registered Canadians so they can be notified immediately of a family emergency or other crisis back home. And if the conditions in a location suddenly change, the local embassy or consulate can notify them right away.

COSMOS makes getting a replacement passport quicker if one is lost or stolen. Foreign Affairs officers have also used COSMOS to get quick help for Canadians in legal trouble, who require medical help, or have had their money stolen.

"The key thing is the service level we've been able to achieve", says Gar Pardy, director general of the consular affairs bureau at Foreign Affairs. "We operate globally 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Given the things we deal with, they can't wait for the normal business hours."

These things include international child abductions, arranging the transportation of Canadians who have died or become ill abroad, searches for missing persons, emergency evacuations of dangerous areas, and more workaday assistance for Canadians in foreign lands.

The system has been so successful it has attracted the attention of other countries' consular departments. Officials from Australia, the U.S., and New Zealand have already been over to inspect the system, and other countries have called Amita seeking more information.

"Nobody else has anything close to this system", Pardy says. "They would give their eye teeth for something like this."

Developed for $2 million, the COSMOS network has already cut the amount of overtime paid to Foreign Affairs staff, handling up to 40 cases a day. And, in some instances, the 24-hour network has eliminated the need for overnight shifts at some foreign postings.

More importantly, it prevents cases of fraudulent use of the "distressed Canadian fund" that is available to help travelers.

Foreign Affairs officials are full of anecdotes about how Canadians show up at consulates and embassies posing as theft victims and asking for money, new passports, or tickets home. In one case, a Canadian man hit the Canadian consulates in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Chicago in just six days with the same hard-luck story.

The COSMOS system prevents such cases of fraud because details of such visits and the name of the visitor are immediately filed on the network. If the visitor shows up at another embassy with the same story, a quick check on COSMOS would expose the deception.

But what COSMOS really saves is time.

Tracking down a Canadian whose location is uncertain may have taken weeks before, as headquarters in Ottawa sent memos to each consulate and waited for a reply. Now, if that Canadian has had contact with any embassy or mission, Ottawa will know right away where he is and how to reach him.

"If you're dealing with a case where there is a 14-hour time difference between you and the mission and it's a matter of life or death, the minute the information is saved on the computer by the mission, you have access to it, and the mission has instant access to directions from headquarters", says Nina Harkess, a Foreign Affairs official who helps run the COSMOS program. "That's tremendously more effective."

For Canadians in politically volatile parts of the world, that's crucial. When Canadian priest Guy Pinard was shot in Rwanda on Feb. 2, for example, staff at the Canadian Embassy in Kigali used COSMOS to contact all the other Canadians in Rwanda, warning them of the risk and advising them on evacuation and safety measures.

"In a place like Rwanda where the situation is so dangerous, virtually every Canadian who goes there will register with COSMOS", Chowdhury says.

Even Canadians going to relatively safe destinations are encouraged to register, especially if they think a family member may need to contact them.

"We have a 24-hour operation here at Foreign Affairs. A family can call us at any time and we can get the ball rolling through the computer instantaneously", Chowdhury says.

Foreign Affairs recommends that Canadians who plan to be abroad for more than three months - or who will be traveling for any amount of time into a potentially dangerous area - register with COSMOS once they arrive at their destination by calling the nearest Canadian Embassy or trade mission.

Canadians looking for more information about COSMOS can call Foreign Affairs at 1-800-267-6788 (944-6788 in the Ottawa area), or contact their local Foreign Affairs office.

Copyright © 1997 by The Financial Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.