Canada is set to massively expand its biometrics collection program at the end of the month, requiring a wide swath of people trying to enter the country — including temporary residents, those on work and study permits, and refugee claimants — to have their biometrics collected by immigration services.
The regulations, which will begin coming into force on July 31, were approved in 2015 as part of a Harper-era omnibus bill, and will mean that in most cases non-Canadian citizens applying for temporary residency, work or study permits, and refugee protection, as well as those applying for permanent resident status, will need to provide a facial photograph and fingerprints to be allowed in. Previously, this requirement only applied to 30 countries, most of them from Africa, the Caribbean or the Middle East.
The government says that this is a necessary step to adapt to the changing landscape of immigration. “Set against the backdrop of an increasing number of immigration applications to Canada, changing international travel patterns and greater sophistication in identity fraud, the accurate determination of identity is key,” read the new policies.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada declined VICE News’ request for an interview, but spokesperson Beatrice Fenelon said in a statement that the expanded system “will provide decision-makers with additional, valuable information when making admissibility decisions.”
Biometrics have been around for a while — Canada first began collecting them from asylum claimants in 1993 — but are becoming more common among western nations. Australia, for instance, has been issuing biometric passports since 2005, and many western nations including France, Germany, and the United States have since introduced similar programs. Last month, the United Kingdom unveiled plans to build a centralized database of biometric information of its citizens (a plan similar to one that Theresa May, then the home secretary, scrapped in 2010.)
But this latest move raises some red flags from privacy experts, who question whether or not such an expansion is necessary, and whether it is actually proven to catch identity fraud and, as the government claims, help reduce crime. A government cost-benefit analysis performed on the present expansion estimated that the new system will catch between 1,440 and 1,860 “foreign nationals with undisclosed criminality,” resulting in between 430 and 560 “prevented crimes” over a ten-year period.
“We do need to question whether or not more data equates to safety,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the Privacy, Technology & Surveillance Project with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, in an interview with VICE News. “If that’s the claim being made, show us the proof.”
The question is not whether or not the system is technically able to improve accuracy in identification in the granting of visas, says McPhail. “It is probably useful for that — but then the question is, is that the problem we need to solve?
“We’re increasingly coming to believe that it’s a valid security solution to collect as much information as possible as though knowing details about people somehow protects us from risk,” she says. That, she says, is a narrow way of thinking. “Knowing who a person is, being able to verify their identity, doesn’t tell you about the risk. [...] I do think there’s a lot of magical thinking about the power of data analysis that is yet to be proven.”
It is not new that the country is building immigration screening policy founded on the assumption that not everyone who turns up at the border is who they say they are; it’s the entire reason screening processes exist in the first place, after all. The expansion of the biometrics collection builds on that idea, instead of introducing a new one for the first time. The government’s own justification of the expansion is that this is a growing concern that demands a scaled-up response, but not a total overhaul.
But when considered through privacy concerns, there is tension — between the privacy we are entitled to on the one hand, and how much of it we are willing to give up to feel safe on the other. “It’s part of a trend towards fear of immigration,” says McPhail. “Fear of refugees; fear of risk at the border instead of, as we have in the past, sort of looking at the concept of immigration as important.”
These are value judgements, to some extent, and in the government’s eyes this policy is capable of addressing privacy and safety.
“Detailed privacy risk mitigation measures related to the collection, use and disclosure of biometric information are outlined in a number of privacy impact assessments that have been shared with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner,” said Fenelon. Those reports have not been made public.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner backs the government’s plan to expand biometric collection, though with the qualification that there be controls. “I would note that from a security standpoint, we believe it is justified to collect fingerprints from individuals seeking admission to Canada for the purposes of verifying admissibility,” says Tobi Cohen, senior communications advisor with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, in an email to VICE News. “We understand fingerprints will be destroyed once a permanent resident is granted citizenship. This is a positive feature.”
Kris Klein, a partner at the Ottawa law firm nNovation and editor of the blog PrivacyScan, says that these biometrics systems work well, and that their use “by both governments and the private sector is only going to increase in the coming years.”
He says however that “what remains is the question of whether or not the government can be trusted to safeguard that information and only use it for the purpose for which it is collected in the first place.
“We have some loose mechanisms in place to try and ensure this, but our laws themselves are weak.”
Klein takes some issue with the lack of transparency. “We rely on the government going through the Privacy Impact Assessment process to identify and mitigate against privacy risks,” he says. “We hope they seek expert advice in this process, but it is not legally required. This, to me, is the big issue.”
A Canadian Border Services agent stands watch at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Ont. on Tuesday, December 8, 2015. Photo by Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press