Can ID? Visions for Canada’s Identity Policy: Understanding Identity Policy and Policy Alternatives

This page has been archived on the Web

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.


University of Toronto Faculty of Information Studies and London School of Economics and Political Science




This report maps, analyzes and makes recommendations concerning the current identity policy landscape in Canada, particularly in the context of the U.S. REALID proposal, the Smart Border Agreement, and plans for the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. The report also looks at plans for drivers’ licences and identity documentation in several Canadian provinces. The report draws upon experiences in other countries and a review of leading cases of identity scheme development in Canada, as well as the results of two research workshops conducted with government officials, academics, civil society organizations and private sector firms.

The ensuing report looks first at the dynamics of identity policy, examining a number of important policy factors. These include the political risks, including the risk of how identity cards in particular can alter the relationship between the citizen and the state and create a source of tension. The authors note that privacy “may yet produce the largest political risk in the Canadian context”. Looking next at the drivers for such policies, the authors warn that the driving principles for an identity scheme could shift in midcourse, further raising the political risks. The report also considers the challenges of building an identity scheme that matches stated goals and objectives within realistic timelines and with reasonable technologies, describing the difficulties of doing so in other jurisdictions. The effectiveness of policy choices and the costs of such systems are described at length, and the authors consider the questions of who ultimately pays for such costs, who decides the policy and who “owns the system”. In Canada, the report points out, a predominant concern is whether a new policy is “owned” by the federal government or the provinces.

The authors next consider the benefits of a national policy framework, stating that, while establishment of a national identity assurance infrastructure may prove highly beneficial (especially to the needs of business), policy leadership is required to cultivate and nurture identity assurance across the Canadian economy. Looking at recent examples from Sweden, Hong Kong and Malaysia, the authors conclude there are many benefits to beginning a national discussion on the need for effective identity strategies across Canada, but that a centralized solution decided by government may not actually produce these benefits. They stress that more work at the ground level is required, within organizational, commercial, and consumer and citizen-facing environments.

In their analysis, the authors outline the bad public policy risks of vendor-driven choices or adopting “neat technologies” such as biometrics without open and careful dialogue, and express alarm at the lack of clarity and transparency on Canadian identity policies. They outline criteria necessary for strong public consultation, as well as propose several sets of principles and tests to guide such an effort. They conclude that it is feasible to build national identity schemes that simultaneously address the legitimate security and data sharing interests of government and the legitimate privacy and autonomy interests of citizens. The report also summarizes findings from two workshops held in Vancouver and Ottawa where approximately 50 individuals participated, and which included a robust discussion of privacy concerns, and whether any scheme should involve mandatory or voluntary (opt-in) use of identity services. In addition, it includes a detailed discussion of provincial, federal and international identity initiatives in recent years, including recent Canada-U.S. border security initiatives.

This document is available in the following language(s):

English only

OPC Funded Project

This project received funding support through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Contributions Program. The opinions expressed in the summary and report(s) are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Summaries have been provided by the project authors. Please note that the projects appear in their language of origin.

Contact Information

Faculty of Information
University of Toronto
Claude Bissell Building (main)
140 St. George Street
Toronto, ON M5S 3G6

Tel: 416-978-3234
Fax: 416-978-5762


London School of Economics
Houghton Street

Tel: +44 (0)20 7405 7686

Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply (required): Error 1: This field is required.


Date modified: