Canada's plans for more wide-ranging sharing of biometric data of visa applicants

February 21, 2014

Canada's plans for more wide-ranging sharing of biometric data of visa applicants

Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration department is considering sharing with three more countries – Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand – apart from the US, confidential biometric data (biometric information includes unique identifiers such as a fingerprint or an  iris scan) of prospective visa applicants and immigrants. Canada already shares some confidential information including biometric data with its closest allies, who are together referred to as the ‘Five Eyes’. These five eyes are Australia, Great Britain, U.S., New Zealand, USA and itself (i.e. Canada). This is apart from and different from the sharing of a broad ranging and detailed immigration information with the United States under the well known ‘perimeter security pact’.

According to an internal confidential note prepared for the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Chris Alexander, the government is creating a software IT (Information Technology) application and system. This software and IT system would be used for the purpose of systematically sharing biometric data of visa applicants with three other countries: Australia, Britain and New Zealand. This confidential note also states that this systematic sharing is better than the earlier method of manual case-by-case sharing, because it can lead to faster gathering of useful needed information and this can also be accomplished at higher volumes. 

At present, Canada has a co-operation agreement on ‘border and immigration issues’ called the ‘Five Country Conference’. And, also there is a protocol agreement which was initiated in 2009. Based on this agreement and protocol, Canada can share fingerprint records numbering 3,000 annually, with each of its conference partner. The information thus obtained has revealed cases of identity fraud, other types of fraud, criminality and other kind of data that immigration officers have been able to make use of to make better decisions, according to the memo submitted to Alexander.

Canada’s intention is to enhance further its exchange of information which is biometric. This it intends to do in a two-step process. The first step will be by quadrupling the number of cases shared with the conference partners to 12,000 cases, and the second and final step would be complete sharing of information with the U.S. later this year, the internal note asserts. The internal note or memo also states its priority is for a new enhanced type of arrangement with the Americans, but that Canada is by itself also creating a computerized system which it says will be improved and enhanced further.  This it says will help and aid systematic sharing with all the members of the ‘Five Country Conference’.

However, Canada’s federal privacy commissioner has made known his fears and anxiety about such huge quantity of routine (but confidential) data sharing with the other countries and has said that it may not be possible or feasible at all to control the consequences of such data sharing with other countries.

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