Passport Office: We won’t let U.S. see digital photos

The Canadian Passport Office insists its digital photo database will not be used as a way to let the United States government spy on Canadian travelers.

As part of its campaign to upgrade the Canadian passport’s security features, the Passport

Office is in the process of replacing standard passport photos with digital images. The gradual rollout of digitized passports — where the photo is no longer glued to the paper but rather part of the page itself — is part of a multi-tiered strategy to prevent passport fraud, said Passport Office spokesperson Marina Moraitis.

As part of the digitized passport rollout — which will happen as current passports expire — the Passport Office has created a photo database with a capacity to store millions of digital photos. It exists to prevent people from applying for a number of passports using a different name, she said.

Moraitis denied initial reports that the database would be shared with the United States as a response to the U.S.’ call for tighter border control.

The U.S. has asked visa-waiver countries, including Canada, to outfit its citizens with secure passports including an attached biometric. There has been some suggestions that the new database would be used by the Canadian government to try and comply with this requirement.

“”We have no intention to share it at this point,”” Moraitis says. “”This is for the passport office and it’s for our own work.””

While agreeing that the government may not have any intention of sharing right now, University of Toronto Centre for Innovation Law executive director Richard Owens said Canadians should be weary of what may come down the line.

“”Now we have a new anti-terrorist act, we’ve got passenger manifests being transferred to the United States so they know who’s coming in on a plane. Nobody thought of that a couple of years ago,”” he said.

Owens said Canadian privacy legislation would be a weak barrier to the government changing its mind. He explained that passport pictures are collected for the purpose of issuing passports and controlling international travel. It is not clear, then, that a broader use of the picture outside of the passport document itself –but related to border control — would be proposed.

“”The second point though, is frankly that the government can do whatever it wants,”” Owens says.

Moraitis said the Passport Office has received funding to undertake a feasibility study for including facial recognition technology with the new passports. However the department has not decided on what process of collecting the biometric data would be used, when it would become part of the passport, or if it is in fact a good way to prevent passport fraud. There is also no time frame on when the decision will be made; Moraitis said she expects RFPs will be sent out in two to four weeks.

“”We have received funding to research and evaluate the applicability, but that’s it. We have not decided that we will go ahead with it,”” she says.

Executive director of CATAAlliance Biometrics Group Peter Turpin pointed out that facial recognition technology is an excellent way to spot people trying to obtain or travel on fraudulent passports. The software can recognize a person even if they alter their look by growing a beard or changing their hairstyle, he said.

“”A biometric is a tool — it’s not in itself an issue. It’s a tool to do a good job and the best identifier on the market. This is the highest level of security there is,”” he said.

Governments’ hesitation to use biometrics information is closely tied to the general lack of understanding of the field, he said.

“”The privacy office will just go nuts. I mean (privacy commissioner) Radwanski keeps coming out and just makes these statements, he’s right from a sharing of databases perspective. You do need to be careful, but you don’t need to be paranoid about it,”” Turpin said.

Owens said we need to consider to what extent biometrics restrict our privacy and to what extent they actually protect it.

“”My privacy is better off if all of the data on my computer is not accessible to anybody, he points out. “”If a biometrics device . . . is the best way to do that, well, maybe that’s the choice I would make if I were concerned about privacy.””

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