Facial recognition project raises privacy fears

The federal government is remaining tight-lipped on a project that would allow the use of biometrics as a potential method to detect identity fraud with Canadian passports.

Passport Canada recently completed a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) report to determine if there are privacy issues or risks associated with the Facial Recognition Proof of Concept Project, according to the department. Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, the Passport Office introduced the project, which was initiated to investigate whether Facial Recognition (FR) technology could further improve the security of Canadian travel documents.

The Passport Office launched a request for proposal for the contract on July 14, 2006, and closed it earlier this week. A spokesperson from the department said because the RFP process is ongoing that she couldn’t comment too much on the specifics of the project. Following the selection of a vendor, the department will conduct a trial phase at a yet-to-be determined passport office where it will roll out the technology.

Passport Canada defines facial recognition technology as specialized software that can convert a photograph into a digital template and analyze facial features to determine the likelihood that two photographs represent the same individual. The technology works by analyzing various patterns of a facial image such as the distance from the eyes to other areas such as the mouth, nose and ears. These facial attributes are then translated into an alphanumeric string called a template. The templates are then compared against other templates to determine a match.

But privacy experts like Peter Hope-Tindall, chief privacy architect of Data Privacy Partners Ltd., say facial recognition is less accurate than other biometric measures such as finger and iris scans.

“It generally has higher error metrics than some of the more other accurate biometrics such as iris scanning and finger scanning,” said Hope-Tindall.

Hope-Tindal also pointed out that some biometric technologies, such as finger and iris scanning, have also shown to have problems with certain age and racial groups.

“As you get older, your skin gets thinner,” he said. “Some Asian groups have more problems with thinner skin than Caucasian groups.”

The software will match Passport Canada applicant photos against photos in its own database as well as photos on a System Look Out database. The Office said in an e-mail that, if implemented, the technology will not involve any change in the current passport application process.

The database will be populated by other government agencies with legal authority to share pictures of ineligible applicants with Passport Canada. The list will contain anonymous photos of target groups of individuals who are not eligible for passport services or who are deemed a security threat, according to the government.

Hope-Tindall, however, said that two of the terrorists in the 9/11 plot were on such lists and that even if biometric measures had been in place and working perfectly, the others would have slipped through.

“Only two terrorists were on a watch-list,” he said. “Even if had systems on every single plane and at every single airport, only two would have been stopped.”

Hope-Tindall added that the two terrorists on the watch-list were the ones who crashed into the Pentagon so that wouldn’t have stopped the other terrorists from flying planes into the World Trade Center.

In an e-mail, a government spokesperson said the facial recognition technology cannot be fooled by a change in appearance such as hairstyle or facial hair. During the test phase of the project, the Passport Office found that the impact of changes such as eyeglasses, facial hair and hairstyle was neutral. The spokesperson went on to say the photo matching technology is, “gender and ethnic neutral.”

The government plans to use FR technology to detect identity fraud or issuance of passports to ineligible applicants.

The PIA report also contained six areas of concern that the government has with regards to the authority to collect and the use of personal information to establish a facial recognition system. These areas include storage, vulnerability to theft or abuse, whether the information can be tampered with, if the data will be linked to other information and the consequence of having an electronic trail of a persons’ every movement.

Hope-Tindall has similar concerns, one being what is commonly referred to by privacy experts as function creep or the degree to which that information can be subsequently used in the future.

“Although we might say we’re not going to do something today, pressure brought to bear and fear has a way of changing what we do in the future,” said Hope-Tindall.

Hope-Tindall is also concerned about the risk of biometrics becoming the default way we identify with anyone.

“My concern is, where does it stop,” he said. “Are we going to use them when we drive into Toronto from Mississauga? Are we going to use them when we go to the bank?”

Passport Canada said it received positive feedback from the federal Privacy Commissioner after she reviewed the PIA. Photo matching complies with standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is a United Nations specialized agency that sets international standards for travel documents.

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