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Biometric Passports: A Response to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative?
By: Krista Boa

August 15, 2006


The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) heralds changes to the identity documentation required for Canadians wishing to enter the United States. While its name might imply that the WHTI is a multi-lateral initiative, it is not. The WHTI was developed by the United States to implement parts of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which requires all individuals entering the United States (including US citizens) to present a passport or another type of identity and citizenship document approved by the Department of Homeland Security: the passport is the preferred document. For other documents to be acceptable under the WHTI, they “must establish the citizenship and identity of the bearer, and include significant security features. Ultimately, all documents used for travel to the U.S. are expected to include biometrics that can be used to authenticate the document and verify identity” [1, emphasis added]. The deadlines that apply to those entering the United States from Canada are January 8, 2007 for air and sea travel and December 31, 2007 for land crossings.

Both Canada and the US seem to be struggling to meet these new requirements within the required timelines. The impending deadlines have caused a flurry of discussion between Canadian and US officials, as well as among bordering cities and states, as the most significant change will be felt at the land border crossings. Given the time remaining for each country to develop and implement the necessary technologies and systems, it remains uncertain whether either country will be able to meet the deadlines, much less develop and test a robust system. These concerns have been so great that the US Senate voted to postpone the deadline at land crossings from December 31, 2007 to June 1, 2009, but this has not come forward in the House of Representatives yet [2]. Nevertheless, the Senate is doing all it can to delay the implementation of the WHTI because of concerns that the PASS card technology (the US alternative to the passport) and fears that those who need new documents will not be able to acquire them in time [3].

At present, it appears Canada has opted to meet these WHTI requirements using the existing passport, augmented with facial recognition technology, instead of developing an alternative border-crossing document like the US PASS card [4]. However, other types of documents currently in use will not be abandoned. Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day and US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff announced in July that members of the NEXUS and Fast and Secure Trade (FAST) programs, which employ biometrics, will continue to enjoy expedited border crossings [5]. NEXUS and FAST are joint Canada-US programs to prescreen frequent travelers between Canada and the United States who are citizens and permanent residents of both countries. NEXUS covers individual travelers, and includes air, highway, and marine sub-programs, while FAST focuses on trade and applies to importers, carriers, and drivers. Day and Chertoff also indicated that both countries will encourage further enrollment in these programs, which I read this to mean they have been deemed acceptable under the WHTI.

Developing a biometric passport for Canadians is not solely a response to the WHTI. Using biometrics in Canadian passports was first proposed in December 2001 in the Smart Borders Action Plan and then in Canada’s 2004 National Security Policy. Additionally, by using facial recognition technology, the Canadian passport will also comply with the International Civil Aviation Organization resolution of May 2003. However, recent steps to amend the Passport Order, the rules that govern the Canadian passport, might indicate that WHTI is motivating Canada to take action now.

On June 28, 2006, Canada took the important initial step toward biometric passports by announcing changes to the Passport Order in the Canada Gazette. Specifically, subsections 8.1(1) and 8.1(2) were amended to read as follows:

8.1 (1) Passport Canada may convert any information submitted by an applicant into a digital biometric format for the purpose of inserting that information into a passport or for other uses that fall within the mandate of Passport Canada.
(2) Passport Canada may convert an applicant's photograph into a biometric template for the purpose of verifying the applicant's identity, including nationality, and entitlement to obtain or remain in possession of a passport.

It is not clear how Passport Canada plans to proceed from this point. According to one article a Passport Canada spokesperson states that no timeline has been set for implementing biometric passports [4].

As part of the application process, Passport Canada will also use facial recognition technology to “screen applicant photos against images of suspects on security watch lists” with the aim of preventing “people who are ineligible for a passport, including national security risks and certain criminals, from obtaining one” [6]. It would appear that at least this part of the system will be in place in late 2007 [6]. While there is little information about this aspect of the program available, it raises some serious concerns about quality, accuracy, and sources of the watchlists to be used, the biases they contain, and whether there will be an appeals process for those wrongly denied passports. The widespread errors and inaccuracies of the US no-fly lists must be avoided in granting a document that is crucial to citizenship and essential for Canadians to exercise their mobility rights.

If this new passport, with its additional security features and security checks, is to be the Canadian response to the requirements of the WHTI, a great deal of work remains before such a system is ready to be used. Furthermore, it is not clear how the requirement for documents with biometrics will be handled if they are not included on the Canadian passport in time. Will Canadians be subject to a US-VISIT type system requiring them to register their biometrics at the border?

US Senator Patrick Leahy’s recent words of caution about implementing the PASS card system too quickly seem to capture the essence of the problem the WHTI’s timelines create: not only does he refer to it as a “train wreck on the horizon”, but he also warns that “[i]t will be far easier and less harmful to fix these problems [in the system] before the system goes into effect than to have to mop up the mess afterwards” [4]. This is a caution worth hearing in the Canadian context as we move forward with implementing biometric passports. Failing to take the time to fully trial and test the technologies and systems risks not only security, but the personal data held in these systems and individuals mobility rights. Finally, we need more information about Passport Canada’s plans for implementing biometric passports, and whether non-biometric passport will be acceptable for travel to the United States in order to evaluate this program and its implications for Canadians.

[1] US Department of State. Frequently asked questions about the new travel document requirements. Online at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cbpmc/cbpmc_2225.html

[2] Border cards have a long way to go, report says. Globe and Mail, June 1, 2006. Online (for a fee) at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/Page/document/v4/sub/MarketingPage?user_URL=

[3] Hudson, Audrey. Pass card placed on hold in Senate. Washington Times, June 30, 2006. Online at http://washingtontimes.com/national/20060629-111905-1877r.htm

[4] Delacourt, Susan. Ottawa takes ‘big step’ to biometric ID. Toronto Star, June 30, 2006. Online at http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Layout/Article_Type1&c=

[5] Minister Day and Secretary Chertoff discuss progress on security issues. Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada News Release, July 18, 2006. Online at http://www.psepc.gc.ca/media/nr/2006/nr20060718-en.asp

[6] Bronskill, Jim. Passport to use facial imaging. Globe and Mail, June 24, 2006: A6.
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