OTTAWA | February 1, 2013

Critics say biometric borders threaten civil liberties

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A new biometric system designed to screen temporary residents entering Canada has come under fire from the NDP and activists who warn that data-sharing with the U.S. threatens civil liberties and signals a dystopic future.

But Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says the new biometrics program will provide border officials with “greater certainty,” helping them to detect identity fraud and catch criminals. 

Beginning in September, citizens of Haiti, Colombia and Jamaica applying for Canadian visas will undergo mandatory fingerprinting and digital photo collection at new visa application centres being established by Canada overseas, according to an Immigration Canada report. At Canadian ports of entry, border officials would then screen the travellers, taking their fingerprints and photos and checking that they match data on file.

The new visa centres will serve as the "primary collection points" for biometric data according to Immigration Canada spokesman Paul Northcott.

List of affected countries

The program is slated to expand later this year to include temporary foreign workers, students, and visitors from a total of 30 states, largely in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.  

A list of countries - which includes war-torn nations like Afghanistan and South Sudan - was released quietly by Immigration Canada in December.

I don't think that Orwell could have imagined the technology we have in place today.

The list resulted from considerations like the number of refugee claims per country, and how many people travelling "without proper documentation or under a false identity" show up at Canada's doorstep, according to the government report. 

It states the new measures are necessary because of a "rise in global identity fraud" and technological innovations that "make it easy to steal, forge or alter identity documents."

Conservative MPs have cited instances when convicted criminals have repeatedly entered Canada under false identities, such as the so-called "Yo-Yo Bandits" who were deported three times but kept returning. 

All told, Immigration Canada estimates that the biometrics project will save federal and provincial governments about $92 million over a decade, largely by reducing the number of people the government detains and then deports. The government also predicts $14 million in savings to Canadians due to reduced crime. 

Threat to civil liberties

But critics warn that the costs of biometrics could include basic civil liberties like the presumption of innocence.

"If you've never committed a crime, you have the right under the Charter to be anonymous from the state, unless you're doing an operation that requires a permit, like driving a car," says Roch Tassé, coordinator of the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, a coalition that includes Amnesty International and other human rights groups. 

Civil liberties advocate Roch Tassé says states collecting biometric data on travellers threaten the right to presumption of innocence.

Opposition NDP members expressed concern about the program during debates over Bill C-31, a controversial overhaul of the Canadian immigration system that came into effect last June. NDP MP Dan Harris says the government put forward the measures before the Immigration Committee finished studying the proposal.

The bill allows the government to collect biometric data and gives the immigration minister power to share this information with any foreign country.

Tassé calls these provisions "alarming," particularly since Canada is planning a biometric data-sharing scheme with the U.S. beginning next year to create a “security perimeter" around the two countries.

"We know that the United States are building up databases of almost every traveller, any biometric data they can get, not only travellers but people around the world," Tassé says.  

"I don't think that Orwell could have imagined the technology, the capacity of the technology we have in place today," he says.

He adds that while data controlled by the Canadian government will be overseen by the privacy commissioner, no such watchdog exists in the U.S.

Immigration Canada refused to grant an interview about civil liberties concerns, but spokesman Paul Northcott wrote in an email that the data-sharing plan is a "key commitment" in the 2010 agreement.

"Better information sharing on immigration and refugee applicants will support better decision-making by both countries in an effort to identify risks and inadmissible people before they reach North America," he wrote.

Syed Hussan, coordinator of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, a Toronto-based coalition of activist groups, calls the project racist.  

"People of colour are being told yet again, that they're going to be assessed, they're going to be quizzed, their personal information is going to kept and shared with foreign governments in perpetuity," he says.  

Big business and biometrics

The Temporary Resident Biometrics Project has an approved budget of $62.3 million in 2012-2013, according to Immigration Canada. 

"Biometric technical solution"

Cost: $9 million

Contract: Design, develop, test and deliver a "biometric technical solution," including hardware and software

Company: Fujitsu Consulting, a subsidiary of one of the world's largest IT service corporations. 

Visa Application Centres

Cost: $51 million 

Contract: Establishing and operating a network of application centres equipped with biometric collection equipment. 

Company: Mumbai-based VFS Global operates more than 80 visa application centres around the world on behalf of 42 governments, according to the company website.

The multinational is also known as VF Worldwide Holdings, which is based in the offshore tax-haven of Mauritius.