Citizenship and Immigration Minister Denis Coderre may be backing away from his strident call for the introduction of a national identity card equipped with biometric identifiers by 2005 for all Canadians. After aggressive promotion of the proposal over the past few months, momentum for the idea has dissipated rapidly with the release of a critical report by the Commons committee on citizenship and immigration.
The committee, after almost a year of study and consultations, issued its interim report Oct. 7. While containing no recommendations, the report presents strong arguments against introduction of national identity cards.
The committee's report details 13 main objections cited by witnesses it heard from. Registered concerns question the ability of national ID cards to prevent identity fraud or combat terrorism (two of the main rationales for adopting a card). The report also raises serious concerns about the potential abuse of the system, invasions of privacy and the cost of implementing the program.
While a biometric ID card might be effective in matching a card to an individual, witnesses told the committee the card would not prevent individuals from applying for cards under false identities. They suggested that instead of creating a new super card, the government should focus its efforts on improving the security of existing identity documents.
Witnesses warned many times that biometric identity cards could be obtained fraudulently by determined parties, and that terrorists did not need to falsify their identities to commit terrorist attacks, undermining Coderre's argument that security would be enhanced through a national ID card.
The committee report also raises the prospect that the card could be demanded for more than its original purpose. Law enforcement agencies could argue that cards should be carried at all times as part of a crackdown on crime, or that cards should be linked to databases containing criminal, financial and travel records.
The Canadian government could argue that possession of a card should be the condition for obtaining access to public services. Over time, government authorities could insist that all types of information relevant to their work - such as benefit records, medical records, driving records, employment history and tax information - be linked to cards.
The private sector could insist on production of an identity card for any business transaction, from buying groceries to renting a car, and could easily amass data profiles of customers. Public and private entities could argue that access to public and private space should be controlled by national ID cards.
Witnesses pointed out that the pervasive use of a single identity card to grant access in society could have severe consequences for people who lost their cards, refused to carry a card, or experienced "false rejections" of their identity owing to flaws in the information technology system. For all practical purposes, these people would be nonentities.
In addition, the committee heard that the linkage of the card to databases could seriously erode individual privacy. At present, the burgeoning records of personal information held by state authorities are divided into numerous, separate databases. With a universal identifier, the "firewalls" between these databases - which have hitherto been essential in protecting individual privacy - could be breached by the creation of centralized databases, by hackers, or by overzealous law enforcers.
Rebutting the contention that "if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to fear," witnesses suggested that, carried to its logical conclusion, this argument "would allow police to enter our homes, read our mail, and listen to our telephone calls at any time just to ensure that we were not breaking the law."
As one witness put it, "(t)he fact is that we all have things to hide, not because they are wrong or shameful, let alone illegal, but simply because they are private." While data protection laws exist and could be expanded if a multipurpose card were introduced, witnesses said that for those laws to be of any value, a massive bureaucracy would have to be introduced to ensure compliance.
Interim federal privacy commissioner Robert Marleau testified that costs associated with a national identity system would be enormous. "Just creating it could cost between $3 and $5 billion, with substantial additional costs to actually operate it," he said in recommending against the card.
The committee's report also questions poll results showing respondents' endorsement of a national ID system. Noting that poll questions had not been posed in a neutral manner and that the polls themselves established that most Canadians did not understand what biometric technology was, the report says "(i)n stark contrast to the polling results," most witnesses told the committee they were "adamantly opposed to any sort of national identity card."
Detailing "new evidence" contained in the Canadian report, a British newspaper suggested that within days of its release the British government had decided to "dump" the identity card scheme that was being shepherded toward legislation by Home Secretary David Blunkett, announcing it was "highly unlikely" the proposal would be included in the Queen's Speech at the opening of Parliament.
The Commons committee on citizenship and immigration recently issued a new invitation for submissions on the question of national ID cards. CAUT will be submitting a short brief in support of an earlier submission given to the committee by the Canadian Bar Association.