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Privacy rights advocates worried about Canada's 'biometric' data requirements

Canada will soon start collecting fingerprints and photographs from citizens of certain nations trying to enter the country. Critics raise concerns about how the government will safeguard the privacy of those whose data it has collected.

Citizen and Immigration Canada announced 10 days ago a list of "29 countries and one territory" whose nationals applying for a visitor visa, study or work permit will be required to provide so-called biometric information at the time of application. For now that means fingerprints and photo portraits, but the term biometric can also include DNA samples and other physical measures to confirm identities.

Biographic information such as a person's name, date of birth, and identity documents "can be easily stolen, forged or altered, resulting in multiple or false identities," said the official government newspaper, the Canada Gazette. The immigration program faces a challenge: "reliably, accurately, and efficiently verifying an applicant's identity."

But the measure is not only aimed at identifying frauds who want to enter the country.

The RCMP will store the biometric information to check matches between immigration fingerprints and fingerprints of people of interest to law enforcement. All the information collected could be matched against unidentified prints; for example those collected from a crime scene, or also fingerprints of persons convicted of an offence, "or other prints of interest to law enforcement agencies," said the Gazette.

The list of countries was developed by the CIC after working in 2011 with other governmental agencies such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. CIC also worked with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and Canada Border Services Agency, among others.

The Gazette explained the countries were selected "following a systematic assessment of immigration patterns including volumes or rates of TRV refusals, removal orders, refugee claims, and nationals arriving without proper documentation, attempting to travel to Canada without proper documentation or under a false identity."

Some of the countries listed, such as Palestine, Sudan and Congo, are involved in armed conflicts. Others face high levels of inequality and poverty like Haiti and Jamaica. Many of them are renowned for systematic human rights violations. Colombia and Pakistan, also listed, hold significant student populations in B.C.

Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney implied he did not believe the new rules were discriminatory or would create diplomatic tensions for Canada: "Biometrics will strengthen and modernize Canada's immigration system," he said in a press release. "Our doors are open to legitimate travellers and, through the use of biometrics, we will also be able to protect the safety and security of Canadians."

Not everyone agrees. Lesley Stalker, an immigration and refugee law expert raises concerns. "The big issue is privacy… we don't know how widely the data collected by the government will be shared," she told the Tyee. "For example, it appears that under bilateral agreements, biometric data may be shared with other countries."

Stalker refers to a joint agreement signed by Canada, the U.K., the U.S., Australia and New Zealand to pursue biometric data sharing for non-citizens. Under the agreement, made in the Five Country Conference in 2009, each country will share approximately 3,000 immigration fingerprint records every year for matching against the other countries' immigration databases. If a match is found, further biographical information could be shared.

Other organizations have questioned whether the use of biometrics will threaten basic privacy rights, including the Canadian Bar Association, Amnesty International and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

The countries affected are Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Vietnam and Yemen.

In announcing its decision, the Canadian government named Palestine not a state but "a territory" despite the recent decision of the UN assembly to include the country as a non-member observer state.

Sebastian Salamanca recently completed a practicum at The Tyee.

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