Canada, Like U.S., Moves to Biometrics for Border Security

OTTAWA (CP) - Digitized photos and fingerprints will soon be collected from thousands of newcomers to Canada as part of a high-tech pilot project aimed at bolstering border security.

The six-month trial by the Citizenship and Immigration Department represents one of the first federal forays into the new and controversial realm of biometric technologies.

The government has signaled strong interest in making greater use of biometrics - measurable physical characteristics such as facial appearance, iris scans or fingerprints - as a means of confirming identity.

The rapidly evolving technology worries civil libertarians and privacy advocates who question the accuracy of the methods and wonder how the data will be shared and used by security agencies.

Digitized facial images and inkless finger scans of as many as 18,000 foreign nationals - refugee claimants, temporary resident visa applicants, and student and temporary worker applicants - will be fed into a database during the life of the pilot project.

Citizenship and Immigration plans to collect biometrics from applicants at the Greater Toronto Area refugee claimant centre and visa offices in Seattle and Hong Kong.

Some biometric data are already required from potential newcomers to Canada. The pilot project, however, will give authorities the tools to match photos and fingerprints against existing files to help screen out ineligible applicants, such as individuals on criminal watch lists.

Once a visa is issued, it will also allow officials to electronically check the document once the individual arrives in Canada.

At Vancouver International Airport and the British Columbia land border crossings at Douglas and Pacific Highway, the Canada Border Services Agency will use digital readers to verify the visa information.

Design, delivery and evaluation of the technologies in the field trial will cost an estimated $6.5 million. A contractor has not yet been chosen.

"The scope and impact of biometric technologies are immense and are beginning to reshape the future of travel," say documents obtained by The Canadian Press outlining the project.

They note Australia, Britain, the European Union, Japan and the United States have all begun exploring the use of biometric identifiers to handle the flow of travellers. And the next generation of Canada's passport will include a computer chip with data about the holder.

Immigration Department spokeswoman Cara Prest said information collected during the pilot project will be used only for the purpose of testing the new technology.

"The intent of the trial is to explore the potential of biometrics in better managing visa applications and entry into Canada," Prest said in a written response to questions.

"As such, the biometric information will not be used to grant or deny visas or entry, and matching against watch lists will not be done in this early test. This trial is simply an evaluation of the technology and the process."

Individuals will be informed about the purpose of the trial, though currently there is no plan to have them sign consent forms.

The department is also discussing implications of the program with the federal privacy commissioner's office.

Tasse said while legislation may permit introduction of new border-security programs, he's concerned that "a lot of the nuts and bolts" are being worked out by bureaucrats, not elected officials.

"The concrete measures themselves should go back to Parliament and be vetted politically," he said.

(c) 2005 Associated Press