Canadian Biometric I.D. Proposals Spark Concern

Sept. 7, 2004
Canada is creeping toward a "surveillance society" with proposals to incorporate biometric information in identity papers

Biometric data plans

Canada is creeping toward a "surveillance society" with proposals to incorporate biometric information in identity papers that will mostly be carried by new Canadians, says the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees


Janet Dench said proposals that virtually every newcomer to Canada would be fingerprinted and photographed under ambitious new federal security proposals are worrisome.

"It looks to me like a march towards a surveillance society," she said in an interview, "with the strategy being to start with those members of the society who are already treated with suspicion, and then work up progressively until everyone is under surveillance.

While Dench welcomed the concept of a single card for refugee claimants, to help them prove who they are, she said embedding biometric identifiers such as fingerprints in the document suggests a prejudice against newcomers.

"Why are we targeting those born outside Canada?" she asked.

The report, released by Citizenship and Immigration Canada under the Access to Information Act, indicates the government is looking at the collection and use of biometric data from about 1 million people annually, from visitors and refugee claimants to permanent residents and new citizens.

It calls for photos and fingerprints on Visa documents for tourists, workers and students within two years, affecting about 650,000 applicants annually.

A proposed refugee claimant card within two years, to be issued to about 35,000 people annually.

The permanent resident card within five years. About 250,000 new cards and up to 50,000 renewals are issued annually.

The citizenship card within seven years. The card is issued to 160,000 new Canadians each year. However, this "could create two classes of citizens (or at least that perception) if biometrics are not also collected from people who are citizens at birth (born in and outside Canada)."

The personal identification effort could also extend to millions more who are born Canadian, possibly reviving the idea of a national identity card. That prospect met a generally chilly reception when floated by the government last year.

The United States began collecting fingerprints and photographs from many travellers last Jan. 5 under the US-VISIT program. Iris scans and facial-recognition systems are also being planned.

While Canadians are technically exempt, those who have a visa to live or work in the U.S. are included. Some Canadian travellers have also reported being photographed and fingerprinted on arrival in the U.S.

The Canadian report, Biometrics CIC Business Requirements, was completed by a consultant last December under the direction of Citizenship and Immigration's enforcement branch.

It touts biometrics - measurable physical characteristics such as facial appearance, an iris scan or fingerprints - as a means of linking a document-holder to the right to travel or receive government services.

Collection of data from newcomers currently varies depending on the category of individual.

For instance, refugee claimants have been photographed and fingerprinted since 1993, but carry no primary identity document. Permanent residents - immigrants one step from becoming citizen - can apply for identity cards but are not routinely fingerprinted. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States prompted the federal government to bolster efforts to track immigrants and refugees.

A new federal working group on document security is studying the proposals, said Huguette Shouldice, spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency, which assumed responsibility for the file in July.

A second report obtained from Citizenship and Immigration under the access-to-information law says several "large policy issues" related to biometrics remain outstanding, including the federal position on personal privacy and legal matters involving information-sharing with other governments.

The paper adds that the case for including biometrics on the existing citizenship card "has not been proven to this point, and further study is needed."

A federal blueprint on national security released in April said the government would examine how to use biometrics in the border and immigration systems to improve travel and proof-of-status documents, as well as to confirm the identity of travellers to Canada.

The government has already confirmed plans to issue a revamped passport beginning next year featuring a computer chip containing a photo of the holder and basic personal information.

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