Canada considers fingerprinting visa applicants
Study to examine biometric technology

ID check could have aided in Zhang case
May 10, 2006. 01:00 AM

Immigration Canada is conducting a study that could eventually lead to the collection of fingerprints and photographs of all visa applicants and refugee claimants.

Visitors living in Canada on student visas — like Cecilia Zhang's killer Min Chen — have never been required to provide fingerprints, but that could change.

The $3.5 million trial, expected to begin by the fall, will examine the use of biometric technology including digitized photographs and inkless fingerprinting by the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration.

The purpose of the trial is to "test the impact of introducing fingerprint and facial recognition technologies on Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Canada Border Service Agency operations, as well as evaluate their usefulness in detecting fraud and facilitating legitimate travel," said immigration ministry official Brigitte Diogo.

For the study, the technology will be implemented in Canadian immigration offices in Hong Kong and Seattle, as well as the refugee-processing centre in Etobicoke.

The data will be collected for six months and will remain confidential, Diogo said.

"A successful trial does not mean that biometrics will be implemented automatically," she said. "The field trial will test the impact of introducing biometrics technology on existing operations."

After analysis, the database will be destroyed and the ministry will then propose the next step, she said. The study could result in changes to border security.

Early in the investigation into the abduction of 9-year-old Cecilia, police lifted hundreds of fingerprints from inside the Zhangs' residence. Had police had fingerprints from immigration officials belonging to Chen, comparisons could have been made quickly after the now 23-year-old became a suspect.

"We would require fingerprints if in doing a background check something came up ... prior criminality or some sort of reason for a person to be inadmissible," said immigration ministry spokesperson Rejean Cantlon, referring to the current system.

Cantlon said he could not discuss the Chen case specifically, but said police checks are required for all visa applicants.

"We do have liaison officers that work with the police," he said. And if police are seeking access to fingerprints contained in immigration files, "we co-operate fully."

As is required with any new program that may involve privacy concerns, the immigration ministry has consulted with the privacy commission.

A poll conducted last year indicates that about 70 per cent of Canadians don't trust new technology and worry about unnecessary disclosure of private information, said Florence Nguyen, a spokesperson for privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

The commission has made recommendations to address privacy concerns.

The ministry has "agreed with our recommendations and will implement them," Nguyen said. "We've recommended that they develop a thorough access system ... to minimize the risk of misuse."

Nguyen said the commission will continue to monitor issues as the study moves ahead.

Canadian Border Services is working in partnership with the immigration ministry on the project, said Melisa Leclerc, director of communications for Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day.

Both agencies "will review whether biometrics can deliver on its potential to combat fraudulent documents used by those seeking to come to Canada," Leclerc said.

The United Kingdom, European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the U.S. are exploring similar projects or have implemented biometric systems, Diogo said.