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Biometrics Make People Wary

Globe and Mail | August 2, 2005

More Canadians support the use of biometric identifiers in government-issued identification, but worry that the costs might be prohibitive and that governments could abuse the system, a a new survey says.

The survey, conducted by custom market-information company TNS and TRUSTe, an on-line privacy provider, found that people in both countries said the passport was the most important identifying document and therefore the most appropriate for the addition of biometric identifiers.

The idea was supported by 85 per cent of Canadians, and by 79 per cent of Americans.

After passports, other kinds of documents include drivers' licences, social insurance cards (called social security cards in the United States) and provincial health-insurance cards. All these also received strong support for biometric data.

The public perceives biometric data — fingerprints or retinal scans — as a way to help prevent fraud and identity theft, TNS privacy officer David Stark said in a statement. But many respondents to the survey expressed privacy and cost concerns about government use of the technology.

The TNS/TRUSTe survey of Internet users in Canada and the U.S. was conducted using data from 1,157 Canadians and 1,003 Americans.

The Government of Canada plans to use facial-recognition biometric technology in the Canadian passport and the U.S. Department of State is currently testing an electronic passport containing a computer chip with biometric information.

In June, the U.S. Congress approved the Real ID Act, which will require state motor vehicle agencies to use a common machine-readable technology and other federal ID standards in drivers' licences by 2008. The new requirements will be established by the Department of Homeland Security and could include adding biometric information to drivers' licences.

The survey also asked whether respondents would support a new national identity card issued to every citizen. Seven in 10 Canadians (69 per cent) said they would view such a card positively, two in 10 would oppose to it (22 per cent) and one in 10 remain undecided.

By contrast, just half of Americans would back a new national ID card, one-third would be against it and 17 per cent are undecided.

"Compared to their southern neighbours, Canadians tend to express slightly more support for including biometric information in government-issued documents and less support for private-sector uses of biometric data," Mr. Stark said.

More than two-thirds of Americans and about six in 10 Canadians think it would be a good idea to add biometric identifiers to credit cards and debit cards, the survey said. But this fairly high level of support does not extend to cards issued by companies. Just 28 per cent of Americans and 18 per cent of Canadians favour adding their biometric data to retail store loyalty cards, for example.

More than eight in 10 people in both countries think that fingerprinting is the most acceptable form of biometric identification, followed by eye scans (supported by 67 per cent of Canadians and 58 per cent of Americans). Hand geometry, voice recognition and facial scans receive much less support.

In addition, Canadians and Americans were asked for their opinions on the potential consequences of biometric technology programs, including government misuse of the information and reliability of the technology. The most widely cited concern, mentioned by three-quarters of citizens in both countries, is the cost of implementing a biometric program.

Respondents also expressed misgivings about how the information might be misused by governments, with six in 10 holding this view, and an equal number believes that their personal privacy would be greatly reduced because the government would be able to track their movements.

Canadians tend to be slightly more upbeat than Americans are about the potential benefits of biometrics for national security. Nearly six in 10 Canadians (58 per cent) but only half of Americans (51 per cent) think that the use of biometric technology in ID documents would make it harder for terrorists to operate in their respective countries.

"Organizations that use [biometric technology] must respect the public's legitimate privacy and security concerns," Mr. Stark.

The survey was conducted on-line between March 17 and 25 in the U.S. and between May 26 and 30 in Canada. The survey results are representative of the on-line U.S. and Canadian adult populations and are considered accurate to within three percentage points (3.1 in the U.S. and 2.9 in Canada), 19 times out of 20.


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