MONTREAL - Canada is finally set to join the rest of the G8 in issuing electronically secure passports but security experts warn the new documents are not a panacea for evolving threats.
Passport Canada CEO Christine Desloges promised on Tuesday that her agency will start issuing ePassports by the end of next year.
"Canada is on track for the full-scale delivery of its ePassport," Desloges told a conference at the Montreal headquarters of the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization.
"Next year we will roll out the full issuance of the ePassports to our citizens."
An electronic passport has been in the works since 2004 as part of Ottawa's national security policy.
The 2008 federal budget renewed the government's commitment to the project, initially setting the launch date for 2011.
A spokesperson for Passport Canada attributed the delays to an overhaul of the passport application process, adding that the government was eager to make the switch.
"Our current passport is very safe," Monique Boivin said. "But with the new one it will be even more so."
In the meantime, Canada has fallen behind much of the rest of the world, where electronic passports have become the norm.
Every other G8 member has the new passports in place and roughly 100 countries in all are using the document.
Canada's electronic passport will resemble the current paper version but include a range of machine-readable security features.
Chief among these is a chip that will contain face-recognition data. Passport applicants will have their face cross-checked against Passport Canada's own database as well as various security watchlists.
Boivin said these high-tech features will make it easier for border guards to screen potential threats trying to enter the country.
"If someone comes to a border with a fraudulent passport, it will be detected," she said.
Impressive as the new passport may be, security experts caution against becoming overly reliant on the technology.
David Clark, president of the passport consulting firm Caicos Management Associates, raised the prospect of criminals de-magnifying the original chip and placing a new one containing fraudulent data behind a visa stamp.
Other possibilities include face-recognition software not registering differences between family members who have swapped passports.
Technology can't replace human vigilance, Clark told the Montreal conference.
"EPassports are not invincible," he said. "There is a risk in creating a false sense of security."
In her speech, Desloges noted that as a result of the more resistant security features on the passport itself, fraudsters are now targeting the application process.
"A secure issuance process is as important as a secure ePassport," she said. "Building a secure issuance process is ... a job (that) is never finished."
In particular, international security officials are concerned about so-called breeder documents such as bank statements, college admission letters and phone bills which are used to apply for passports and visas.
"There is a continuing problem with the integrity of passports and other identity documents due to haphazard issuing processes in some countries and the uncertainty of the breeder documents which form the basis of the passport issued," the head of the UN's Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, Mike Smith, said in a speech.
"Border control is probably the field that needs the most work in terms of national action."
But efforts to improve the security of travel documents come with added costs, and those are likely to get passed on to travellers.
Passport Canada, after all, is a self-financed branch of the Canadian government; its operating budget comes from passport fees.
Boivin acknowledged the ePassport is more expensive to produce, but said Passport Canada would consult the public before seeking Ottawa's approval to raise its fees.
"We will publish the new fee schedule this fall and Canadians will have the chance to comment, or complain," she said.