Ottawa eyes security plan using biometric data
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  Ottawa eyes security plan using biometric data

CANADIAN PRESS/Sept 5, 2004

OTTAWA Virtually every newcomer to Canada would be fingerprinted and photographed under ambitious federal security proposals, The Canadian Press has learned.

A newly obtained report shows the government is looking at the collection and use of biometric data of about one million people annually, from visitors and refugee claimants to permanent residents and new citizens.

The personal identification effort could also extend to millions more who are born Canadian, possibly reviving the idea of a national identity card, indicates the report released by Citizenship and Immigration Canada under the Access to Information Act.

The prospect of a universal identity card for Canadians met a generally chilly reception when floated by the government last year.

One refugee advocate roundly denounced the latest set of plans as a move towards a "surveillance society."

The 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.

"The use of biometrics is not a panacea for program issues, but promises to be a useful tool whose time has now arrived," the report says.

"Biometric technologies potentially add an additional layer of security to a program, supporting the anti-terrorism agenda."

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 citizens, can apply for identity cards but are not routinely fingerprinted.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States by Islamic extremists prompted the federal government to bolster efforts to track immigrants and refugees.

The report recommends incorporating photos and fingerprints into:

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, which is capable of holding biometric information, within five years. About 250,000 new cards and up to 50,000 renewals are issued annually.

The citizenship card within seven years, 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)."

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.

"We're not starting from scratch," she said. "All the work that's been done up to now is on the table."

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, finds the proposals worrisome.

"It looks to me like a march towards a surveillance society, 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," she said in an interview.

One reason for consideration of a federal identity card for refugees is the confusing array of documents now issued to claimants.

Dench said while she welcomes the concept of a single card for refugee claimants to help them prove who they are, embedding biometric identifiers such as fingerprints in the document suggests a prejudice against newcomers. "Why are we targeting those born outside Canada?"

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.

"While Canadians have by and large supported greater security measures, they continue to have concerns about privacy, costs and sovereignty," says the background paper, prepared in January by a federal task force on document integrity.

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.

Ottawa has also developed software for comparing photos of passport applicants against a watch list of terrorist suspects.
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