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Biometric data collection evolves and expands in Canada

06/05/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/04/2016 05:59 EDT
The federal government's plan to increase its collection of biometric data from visitors to Canada has been met with concern, but the practice is already a large part of our day-to-day lives.

Biometrics measure a person's unique physiological characteristics — including face, iris, retinal veins, fingerprints, voice and hand geometry — to verify identity.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada told CBC News that digital photos and fingerprints are "the only biometrics data applicants will have to provide" under the government's plan for expanded collection of data. Visitors will have to pay $85 to cover the cost of data collection.

Here are some ways that biometrics already touch our lives.

How it works now

The government currently collects the biometric data of foreign nationals from 29 countries and one territory. For an $85 fee, a visitor's fingers are scanned on a glass screen and their digital photo is taken. Exemptions include those under 14 or over 80 years of age, as well as diplomats.

New regulations expected by 2018-19 would expand screening to include visitors from about 150 more countries, including those visitors who need visas, work or study permits. Americans are exempt.

Move to biometrics launched in 2008

The government first announced it was moving to biometrics in 2008 because they are more reliable than the use of subjective photo identification.

The 2008 budget said, "Border security remains a priority for Canadians. Criminals are increasingly more sophisticated and well-funded, including those who engage in document fraud to illegally move people or goods across borders."

Facial recognition since 2009

Passport Canada has used facial recognition technology since 2009— scanning for duplicate images in a database of 34 million images to combat fraudulent applications. The agency's identity fraud desk alerted the RCMP after the technology detected two passports issued to murder suspect Robby Alkhalil in 2012. Each year, Passport Canada identifies about 65 genuine passports that were issued to fraudsters.

Canada 'catching up'

Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander responded to criticism that the new measures went too far by saying that Canada is actually "catching up" to 70 other countries, such as the United States and Australia. He said the data will be stored for 15 years.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday that Canada already has access to biometric data collected by other countries. He said Canada would share its data with other countries, but that privacy and legal standards will be in place to protect Canadians.

'Fingerpoints' controversy 

Montreal amusement park La Ronde came under fire last year for scanning biometric data of visitors at park gates even though it had not been approved to do so. La Ronde had not applied under the Commission d'accès à l'information du Québec to operate a biometric database, the Quebec privacy commissioner said at the time. The park said its "fingerpoints" system, which scanned the index fingers of season-pass holders, was meant to speed up admission.

Finger scanning is used at theme parks in the United States, including Disney, Universal Studios and SeaWorld.

Apple iPhone fingerprint scanner

Biometrics made a mainstream splash with the 2013 launch of the iPhone 5S, which featured a "Touch ID" that uses a person's fingerprint to unlock the phone. But similar technology appeared in commercial gadgets a decade earlier when Sony introduced a thumb drive with a fingerprint scanner.

Need for 'special precautions'

In a letter to parliamentarians this week, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien warned that the collection of biometric information should come with "special precautions" to ensure the protection of Canadian privacy laws.

"It is imperative that government institutions and other organizations think carefully before proposing initiatives that call for the expanded collection, use or disclosure of biometric information. The challenge is to design, implement and operate a system that actually improves identification services, without unduly compromising privacy." 

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