Federal 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.

Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, the Passport Office introduced the project to investigate whether facial recognition technology could further improve the security of Canadian travel documents.

The Passport Office launched a request for proposal for the contract on July 14, which just closed last month. A spokesperson from the department said because the RFP process is ongoing, 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.

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 such as 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 accurate biometrics such as iris scanning and finger scanning,” said Hope-Tindall.

He also pointed out that some biometric technologies, such as finger and iris scanning, can be problematic 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.

Where does it stop?
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 said, however, 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. “Even if they had systems on every single plane and at every single airport, only two would have been stopped,” he said. Hope-Tindall said 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.”

“My concern is, where does it stop?” said Hope-Tindall. “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?”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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