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Interim Privacy Commissioner questions merit of a national ID card

(OTTAWA) September 18, 2003 - The Interim Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Robert Marleau, made the following statement today before the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration regarding a national identification card:

"The question of whether we need a national identification card may be the most significant privacy issue facing Canadians today. Such a card would entail the collection, use and dissemination of personal information on a massive scale. We need to consider the benefits, risks, and costs carefully.

The debate is not just about cards, but about an elaborate and complex national identity system, with a database, communications networks, card readers, millions of identification cards, and an array of policies and procedures to address issues such as security, privacy and manageability.

The financial implications of this would be enormous. Our research indicates that just creating the system could cost between 3 and 5 billion dollars. Operating it would require substantial additional ongoing costs.

One would not normally go to the Privacy Commissioner for an appraisal of the financial costs of a proposal. But it is not really so far removed from my specialized area of interest, because I would be much more supportive of an investment of resources in systems that are supportive or respectful of privacy. That is not the case with a national identification system. In fact, the financial costs of this system are overshadowed by the cost to Canadians' privacy rights, and to the relationship between Canadians and the state.

Identification cards allow us to be identified even in situations where we have every right to remain anonymous. Unless technological limits are built into them and strict controls placed on their use, they inevitably reveal more information about us than is required simply to establish our identity or authorization in a particular situation. And without technical limitations and strict controls on their use, they are a powerful tool to link together our various activities and produce profiles of our lives.

Moreover, it is highly unlikely that a national identification system could be developed without compulsory participation, serious inaccuracies, and significant disruption and inconvenience to individuals.

We need to ask ourselves whether these kinds of costs are justified by any significant benefit.

It is claimed that a national identification card would help to combat terrorism. Precisely how, though, is not clear, unless we are prepared to abandon tradition and make every daily transaction of every Canadian available for scrutiny and analysis by the state.

It is also said that an identification card would help combat identity theft. Again, how that would work is not at all clear. A comprehensive infrastructure of electronic card readers and trained personnel would be very complex technically, and very expensive to deploy. And the system would still rest at some point on foundation documents like birth certificates and drivers licences, so an identity thief who surreptitiously obtained foundation documents could still apply for a card in someone else's name.

Finally, it is claimed that a national identification card will make it easier to cross the US border. But if US authorities are asking for the type of information that is typically on a passport, let us use a passport, rather than create a new card required by every citizen, not just by those who want to travel to the US. In fact, according to reports in this week's papers, that is exactly what US authorities are proposing: Canadians wishing to enter the US will be required to present, not an identification card, but a passport.

In my brief, I suggest that this Committee consider certain essential questions about a national identification system, because simply asking them brings out the enormous implications of such a scheme-the practical and technological challenges of creating and managing it, the need to develop comprehensive legal and policy frameworks, the implications for privacy. These questions include:

  • Who would be issued an identification card? Everyone? Canadians at the age of majority only? If children are issued a card, at what age?
  • Would participation in and identification by the system be voluntary or mandatory?
  • What would be the scope of the data that would be gathered about individuals participating in the system?
  • Who would be allowed to demand production of a card from card carriers for proof of identity?
  • Who could contribute, view, or edit data in a national ID system?
  • What types of uses of the card and its attendant system would be allowed?
  • What legal structures would protect the system's integrity as well as the data subject's privacy and due process rights, and determine the government and other parties' liability for system misuse or failure?
  • Who would bear the full weight of privacy rights accountability and responsibility for a national identity system?
  • What are the alternatives to a national identity system?

My view is that the challenges of putting in place a national identification system that is effective, affordable, and respectful of privacy are enormous. A strong case for the benefits of a national identification system has not been made; to the extent that benefits would exist, they would be marginal at best.

Accordingly, my recommendation is that this Committee reject the idea of a national identity card as unworkable and unjustified."

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For more information, please contact:

Anne-Marie Hayden
Media Relations
Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
Tel: (613) 995-0103

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