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A national identity card

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Statement before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration

March 18, 2003
Ottawa, Ontario

George Radwanski
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

(Check against delivery)

I very much appreciate this opportunity to meet with you today on the subject of a biometric national ID card.

Let me say right at the outset that in my view there is no need for a national identity card scheme in Canada.

There is no justification for it.

It would have enormously damaging implications for privacy rights.

It is totally foreign to our Canadian traditions and values.

And it would cost anywhere between $3 billion and $5 billion, probably closer to $5 billion, to implement - money that could be far better spent on purposes that help us rather than harm us.

The creation of a national ID card is not only an idea without merit. It is also an idea that is totally without any substantial support.

This Committee has to date heard from 61 witnesses on this subject. Only five of them were in favour of a national ID card. Of these, three were private citizens, one was a research and consulting firm on immigration issues, and one was a group that represents immigrant women.

And not one of even these 5 "favourable" witnesses actually came before the Committee to support this card; they were only asked about while appearing on other matters.

As well, since last November, 21 newspapers across Canada have run editorials opposing the creation of a national ID card. Not one newspaper has editorially supported it.

Not even the Minister who asked this Committee to study the idea of a national ID card, Mr. Coderre, has actually said that he himself supports it. Mr. Coderre says that he only wants "a debate" on the issue.

And even one of Mr. Coderre's own Cabinet colleagues - his predecessor as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration - has taken the highly unusual step of publicly rejecting it.

Well, Mr. Coderre has had the debate he wanted. And I hope we can all agree that the NO side has predominated by a landslide.

But let me now briefly summarize why, as the Officer of Parliament mandated to oversee and defend the privacy rights of Canadians, it is my duty to oppose the creation of any such national identity card.

A national identification card would radically change Canadian society by drastically infringing on the right to anonymity that is a key part of our fundamental right of privacy.

In Canada, agents of the state have no right to require us to identify ourselves in our day-to-day lives unless we are being arrested or we are carrying out a licensed activity such as driving. The police cannot stop people on the street and demand, "Your papers, please."

The creation of a de facto internal passport would inevitably change that.

The creation of a biometric national identity card, which would be required for more and more purposes, would also open the door to relentless tracking of our activities, transactions and whereabouts.

There is no realistic possibility that such a card could remain voluntary.

Even if it were initially introduced on a voluntary basis, who can actually believe that the Government would invest billions of dollars in the creation of such a card and the network of biometric readers that would be required for it, and then indefinitely allow that it be used only by some fraction of the population?

In any event, as both government and businesses started asking people to produce such a card, the pressure to conform would be enormous. People who didn't have one would increasingly be open to suspicion.

Ever since September 11, I have repeatedly made clear that, as Privacy Commissioner, I would never seek to stand in the way of necessary and justifiable measures to protect us against terrorism, even if they required some infringement on privacy.

But I have suggested that any such proposed measure must meet a four-part test of necessity, effectiveness, proportionality and lack of any less privacy-invasive alternative.

In my view, a biometric national ID card fails dismally on every count.

No one, not even Minister Coderre, has suggested that such a card is necessary.

If a minister of the Government, in the exercise of his duties, believes that a measure is necessary, he doesn't call for a vague debate on it. He forthrightly advocates it, which Mr. Coderre has not done.

He has only suggested, without sufficient detail or elaboration, that a biometric ID card could make it easier to enter the United States, could help reduce identity theft, and might somehow help against terrorism.

That's a long way from demonstrating real and pressing necessity for this particular measure.

The second test - effectiveness in meeting a demonstrated need - scarcely makes sense in this case, since no need has been demonstrated.

But a national ID card would, in fact, be ineffective in achieving any of the benefits that the Minister has vaguely cited.

We already have a document for facilitating entry into the United States or any other country - the Canadian passport.

And it's not clear why Mr. Coderre believes that the United States would spend billions of dollars of its own money to install a vast network of dedicated biometric readers for a Canadian identity card at every border crossing point from coast to coast.

As for identity theft, these frauds seldom happen face-to-face. They tend to happen over the telephone, by mail, and in electronic commerce - all situations where an I.D. card is simply irrelevant.

The cards themselves would be susceptible to fraud. No matter how high-tech, they can only be as good as the documents that individuals provide to establish their identity in the first place.

And not even the most high-tech I.D. card can long deter highly sophisticated organizations of criminals or terrorists. There is no technology that cannot be compromised or subverted.

In fact, by relying on a single card and treating it as infallible, we would be making the situation much worse.

As for terrorism, many of the September 11 terrorists were well established in their communities and used their own names. If the U.S. had been issuing identity cards, they would have qualified for one.

An ID card is useless against terrorist sleepers who haven't previously identified themselves as terrorists, against terrorists who manufacture false identities to obtain a card and against terrorists who arrive as tourists or other visitors who wouldn't have a card.

With regard to the test of proportionality, obviously, the damage to privacy can't be proportional to the benefits if the benefits are negligible.

And the damage to privacy would be massive.

First of all, we have the prospect of the Government of Canada requiring every Canadian to come forward and be finger-printed or retina-scanned. That itself is unthinkably invasive.

The card would become an internal passport that we would have to present to authorities on demand, making it a powerful instrument of social control.

Businesses, too, would see the card as reliable and demand it widely as a condition of providing service.

All this would move us towards a society where every movement and transaction we make could be recorded, tracked, and linked to our identity.

And if a single national card also eventually - as seems likely - combined other functions such as driver's license, health card linked to electronic health records, and so on, the damage to privacy would be greater still.

This brings us to the final test, and the conclusion of my remarks: Is there a less privacy-invasive alternative?

In this instance, the alternative is simple: No national identity card. I respectfully urge this Committee to resoundingly say No.


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