Canadians come out in support of biometric passports

Canadians and Americans support biometric technology in government-issued documents but are concerned about high costs and the potential for government misuse of information, according to a recent survey by a global market research firm.

The survey, which was released Tuesday, was conducted

by TNS and online privacy provider TRUSTe earlier this year. It found that citizens in both countries ranked the passport as the most appropriate document for the addition of biometric identifiers such as fingerprints or retinal scans, with 85 per cent support in Canada and 79 per cent support in the U.S.

“Canadians’ value system tends to be more faith and support for their government,” said David Stark, privacy officer at TNS. “In the U.S. it’s individual liberty and the government should only intervene when necessary.”

Stark added another contributing factor might be the higher number of Canadians that currently hold a passport compared to Americans. Passport Canada’s Web site estimates 2.5 million passports are issued every year whereas just over 8.8 million passports were issued in the U.S. in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of State Web site.

“Canadians are (more) accustomed to these government-issued documents like the passport,” said Stark.

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

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) currently operates the CanPass Air program at many of Canada’s international airports including Calgary, Toronto and Halifax. The program uses iris recognition technology to get Canadian frequent travelers through customs faster.

Out of 1,157 Canadians and 1,003 Americans surveyed, 67 per cent of Canadians and 58 per cent of Americans preferred fingerprinting followed by eye scans as the most acceptable forms of biometric identification followed by hand geometry, voice recognition and facial scans receiving significantly less support.

The CanPass program, like many biometric programs, is voluntary. Before travelers are approved they are subjected to a thorough security and background check, said CBSA spokesperson Loretta Nyhus.

“Information that we collect for that particular process is not shared with a third party,” said Nyhus. “Any time an individual travels across the border and clears the CBSA, that information, if there’s any type of criminal activity detected, we may share that sort of information with other law enforcement agencies.”

Nyhus added CBSA only shares that information under restricted circumstances as governed by Canada’s Privacy Act.

Citizens in both countries (three-quarters of respondents) expressed the most concern over the high cost of implementing a biometric program.

Second to cost respondents also felt there’s a high potential for government abuse of information. Six in ten survey participants felt their personal privacy would be greatly reduced because the government would be able to track their movements. When it comes to national security, however, Canadians are slightly more optimistic than Americans, with 58 per cent of Canadians versus 51 per cent of Americans who believe the use of biometric technology would make it harder for terrorists to operate in their respective countries.

“On the one hand you’ve got a tradition of civil libertarianism in both countries,” said Stark. “The recent events are causing people to think about this tradeoff. The tradeoff is my personal privacy versus national security.”

Travelers who have signed up with CanPass, however, aren’t apprehensive, said Nyhus.

“From all accounts of individuals who have signed up with the program they’re very pleased with it,” said Nyhus.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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