Soon after being sworn in as Canada’s new minister of public safety, Stockwell Day let it be known that he was quite open-minded about the prospects of a new national identification (I.D.) card. Pointing to new US entry requirements, concerns about terrorism, and recent initia- tives in other countries, notably Great Britain, the minister expressed a certain inevitably about Canada following suit.
More recently, however, during his inaugural Washington meetings with American Homeland Security officials (including Secretary Michael Chertoff), Day was decidedly more temperate. He provided reassurance that even as the US introduces a new I.D. card for its own citi- zens " while imposing new entry requirements on visitors, Canadians will still be able to cross the border with existing forms of documentation, such as birth certificates and dri- ver’s licenses. More recently, during Ambassador Michael Wilson’s courtesy appearance on a congressional commit- tee, it was clear that several House members were not aware that new I.D. requirements would be in place at the Canadian border by the end of 2007.
If there is anything clear of late in political pro- nouncements and bilateral meetings, it is the confusion that pervades US plans pertaining to border identification and control. Each time a high level meeting takes place (prior to Day’s Washington visit, there was Prime Minister Harper’s discussion with President Bush in Cancun and, more recently, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay’s raising of the issue with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice), subtleties change. The uncertainty is unnerving for citi- zens, businesses, and border towns, indeed, for the country as a whole.
What we know is that the US Congress has passed a law imposing new identification require- ments for border crossings, which will take effect at airports next year and all land crossings the year following. For Americans, a new national I.D. card will be introduced as an alternative to a passport, but a necessary sup- plement to existing forms of identification. For those seeking entry into the US, including those from visa-exempt countries, new restrictions will apply. For a time, it seemed a passport would be obligatory, although Day’s recent pronouncements suggest otherwise.
Without question, beginning in 2008 it is going to be more difficult for Canadians to cross into the US without a passport. Day’s optimistic portrayal of this situation cannot mask the emergence of a two-tiered border, one for passport holders and the other for the rest. As Day acknowledged, those in the latter queue will need an extra dose of patience and politeness to endure a more probing and formal process of validation than has typically been the case to date.
Terrorism and illegal immigration are hot button political issues as Congressional elections approach: as such, nobody will be campaigning for fewer controls any time soon. Despite such resolve, uncertainty pertaining to Canadians and other foreigners also extends to what the specifics of new laws will mean for travelling Americans. Less than one-quarter of all Americans currently possess a pass- port, and few people in Washington know what the US federal government has in mind for a new identification scheme.
Some observers " and many lobbyists from the business communi- ty " clearly hope that with elections over in 2007 (albeit temporarily, as presidential campaigns take shape), the current confusion may actually yield additional breathing room before the new restrictions are fully enforced. The notion of a ”œpilot project” is thrown about, leading to an extended transition period that will allow plenty of time for Canada to adjust.
Day’s apparent willingness to watch and learn from the American experience may well reflect this senti- ment " perhaps one that is being rein- forced through internal, bilateral channels between governments. It may also reflect the fact that a new national I.D. card for Canadians is not one of the five core priorities of the Harper minority government, and as the Liberals discovered when they broached the issue a few years ago, opinions can quickly polarize.
Yet, the matter is a good deal more complex than whether or not a new card will be required. Even if Americans ease their own border restrictions (a most unlikely prospect), there is a growing number of reasons to doubt the suitability of the status quo.
Despite the tendency to equate new identification schemes with the post-9/11 focus on terror, recent discussions about a new I.D. card actu- ally began in earnest during the 1990s. Two inter-related rationales presented themselves: reducing waste and fraud, on the one hand, and better service integration and delivery, on the other. Both themes remain prevalent in many jurisdictions, notably in the UK, where the British government has attempted to downplay the anti- terrorism dimension in response to critics of a new I.D. card now being implemented. The Province of Ontario briefly explored a new integrat- ed ”œsmart” card during the 1990s as a means to improved and more efficient service capacities. The scheme was later abandoned due to concerns about cost, complexity and pri- vacy, but the notion of a ”œsmart” initiative remains important, denoting the utiliza- tion of new technologies to augment the efficacy of a sys- tem linking a personal card and government services.
Indeed, the steady expansion of Internet access and the pursuit of e-government have led to the enshrinement of serv- ice transformation as a central tenet of public sector reform. The notion of more customer-centric gover- nance in this regard is closely inter- twined with the principle of interoperability, initially a technological term denoting the capacities of different computer and information systems to communicate and share information across organizational boundaries.
Today, interoperability is a pro- foundly political and strategic chal- lenge, both within governments and across the public sector as a whole. The federal government, for example, is restructuring itself along horizontal lines both internally (via the shared services branch of Public Works and Government Services) and externally (through the fledging Service Canada). Both of these initiatives are examples of deepening interoperability and the resulting pressure for more collabora- tive governance mechanisms that tran- scend vertical silos.
The external interface of service transformation between enjoined pub- lic sector entities and the public is entirely dependent on a robust system of identity management and authenti- cation. Breaches of personal informa- tion holdings from technical failure or more malicious attacks aimed at virtu- al vandalism or identity theft are widening, and they represent the Achilles heel of online service delivery. Building on its leading-edge, secure channel (which enables the encryp- tion " or protection, of information exchanged during online transac- tions), the federal government has recently introduced a new e-pass as an electronic credential to facilitate online access to a widening and more integrated bundle of services.
Yet registration for this pass may be viewed as cumbersome or intru- sive, and uptake has been modest. More worrisome for many federal offi- cials is the continued reliance on the social insurance number (SIN) as the country’s main personal identifier. The creation of the SIN by the Pearson gov- ernment in 1964 envisioned a limited usage for unemployment and pension programs. However, it has since expanded to over 20 federal statutes and programs that now use the SIN as the main personal identifier (along with many additional uses outside of the federal government), a trend that explains the term ”œfunction creep,” adopted by many critics of any new identifier (which will invariably, they charge, have broader uses than those initially envisioned).
The auditor general has cast doubt on the SIN registry in recent years, pointing to fraudulent activity, insuffi- cient controls and antiquated systems. Since 2001, the federal government’s Modernizing Services for Canadians initiative has quietly set out to patch up such weaknesses to the extent pos- sible (a task now inherited by Service Canada). A new I.D. card would replace or complement the antiquated SIN-based identity system with a smarter, more sophisticated mecha- nism that is both more secure and more interoperable.
Biometric tools that embed a unique physical or genetic trait (such as a finger print or retina scan) are increasingly viewed as inevitable in this regard, not only for service integrity and better delivery, but also for national security. Indeed, already biometrics are becoming common- place in a range of uses, including passports and smart cards, immigra- tion assessment systems, Disney theme park entry tickets, and a grow- ing number of beachfront bars, where they are viewed as a promising alterna- tive to carrying cash.
Yet, biometric devices remain infantile in usage, and the potential for an erosion of privacy is of particu- lar concern. Had it not been for 9/11, such questions would surely mean insurmountable barriers for any North American government where pre-2001 suspicion of expanded information holdings ran high (recall the HRDC firestorm in the late 1990s surround- ing plans to create an integrated national database of personal information, envisioned as a means to better coordinate and deliver services).
Over the past five years, of course, the political context has shifted dramat- ically, and many public opinion surveys show wide- spread support for new I.D. schemes, including those based on biometrics. From the government’s standpoint, interoperability is now not only a foundational aspect of service trans- formation, it is a critical element of national security. New legislation in both Canada and the US has enabled government-wide restructuring orga- nizationally and a much greater ability on the part of public agencies to extract and process information from both internal and external sources.
This determination to cast an anti- terrorism net, both physically and vir- tually, within bolstered national borders is a powerful driver of the need to create new I.D. mechanisms. Along with the UK plan, the US federal gov- ernment recently passed legislation requiring states to adhere to new tech- nological standards for the issuance of driver’s licenses, a step likely to be fol- lowed by a national database of such registrations, which will most certainly be accessible to security agencies.
The lessons for Canada are twofold. First, and the one most readi- ly acknowledged by Stockwell Day, is the growing peer pressure on Canada to act, particularly as continental inter- operability tied to border management hovers over this country’s trade access to the world’s largest open market.
The second lesson is more complex. Federal action in the US over state jurisdiction raises the spectre of pre- cisely what a national I.D. card would mean in this country in terms of inter- governmental policy and administra- tion. Not only are driver’s licenses and critical documents such as birth certifi- cates the domain of provinces, but so too are health cards. And here much of the debate outlined above in terms of service and security provisions is play- ing out in parallel, as provinces pursue e-health strategies predicated on elec- tronic health records and more inte- grated, patient-centric care.
It is only a matter of time before provinces revisit the notion of a smart card, certainly in health care, and like- ly across a more integrative set of serv- ice offerings such as driver’s licenses, education and training, and social assistance. As the public sector aims for more seamless governance (to both serve and protect), a new infrastruc- ture of identification and authentica- tion carries important ramifications for federalism. Whether this domestic interdependence was what motivated Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to call upon the Harper government to explore a new security document (as an alternative to the passport) is unclear, but the provinces must be at the table.
There is little question that the service and security dimensions of new identification mechanisms are suffi- ciently important to warrant further examination by governments in Canada. More important than any technical analysis, however, is the nature of this examination. What may well prove determinant is the process put forth to engage stakeholders and the public, and to ensure openness and accountability. In short, will there be public trust?
The absence of sufficient trans- parency in public sector governance today is a real concern. There are two key factors at play: first, the organiza- tional and technological complexity that increasingly separates operational realities (increasingly horizontal and network-based) from formal ministeri- al arrangements (separate vertical hier- archies); and second, the extended realm of security provisions deployed by governments since September 2001.
The first point, complexity, is itself a multi-faceted challenge. Aside from stakeholder groups presenting precon- ceived viewpoints on the issue of a national I.D. card (as many did to the 2003 Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration), the level of public awareness and under- standing is highly uneven at best. The polarized politics of the issue often heighten this variance, favouring media sound bites and dramatic images and analogies (i.e., Orwellian big brother) over more reasoned and nuanced dialogue.
The problem extends within the public sector, where only a select num- ber of officials and politicians are well versed in the matter, themselves joined by private sector specialists only too keen to advocate their preferred solution. The result is a small, techno- cratic policy community surrounded by a political environment filled with misinformation and confusion stem- ming from polarized opinions.
Here is where process becomes essential to progress. Although Stockwell Day is certainly not wrong to avoid specific proposals for a new national I.D. card in his initial pro- nouncements, a key lesson of his pred- ecessors is the failure of the previous Liberal government to move beyond the purview of a Parliamentary com- mittee and facilitate broader public debate involving the citizenry, as well as other levels of government.
This failure stems partly from the culture of secrecy that traditionally pervades the national secu- rity apparatus, which has become even more firmly entrenched since 9/11. Former deputy prime min- ister Ann McLellan con- fessed to being frustrated by the engrained levels of resistance to more open- ness, a sentiment echoed by several Senate committee reports in recent years. A long-delayed plan for a new parlia- mentary committee of national securi- ty, to provide " for the first time in this country’s history, some degree of direct political monitoring of security agencies, continues to languish.
The findings of the Arar Commission may help to illuminate these issues in the near future, as might the Conservatives’ pledge to broaden access to information provisions. Yet, the Conservatives have also promised to augment the resources of the highly secretive Canada Borders Services Agency, create a new foreign spy agency, and expand the country’s military and law enforcement capabilities.
For the time being, then, there remains an implied notion of deferen- tial trust that has characterized the very limited relations between the public and elected officials, on the one hand and security and intelli- gence agencies, on the other. This relationship lies at the heart of any new I.D. plan, not only since it is the minister responsible for security who is seemingly intent on leading this file, but also since the engrained secrecy of national security and intel- ligence bodies may be fertile ground for internal mismanagement, func- tion creep, civil rights abuses and the diminishment of privacy.
Such arguments will be only too quickly exploited by skeptics of any new I.D. scheme, unless the govern- ment demonstrates a genuine commit- ment to cultivating trust through direct political and public engage- ment. Such a commitment begins dur- ing the consultative phase, but it extends equally to implementation and the need for new oversight mech- anisms beyond the usual sort of reac- tionary, after-the-fact investigations routinely undertaken by parliamen- tary officers and judicial inquiries.
Another misnomer is to presume that the more established a democracy the greater the resistance to new iden- tification measures. The Scandinavian countries are a case in point. Virtual authentication techniques and wide- spread information-sharing across dif- ferent government entities are widely permitted in these jurisdictions, due to uniquely high levels of trust in gov- ernment on the part of citizens. The unparalleled degree of openness in public institutions is crucial in facili- tating such trust.
On the other side of the spectrum, in countries such as the US, tra- ditionally known for greater skepti- cism toward government action, there is clearly an important shift in sentiment since 2001. Yet, even here, the vigorous congressional debates surrounding the Patriot Act, unautho- rized federal wiretapping, govern- ment access to private sector information, and new identification requirements aimed at federal and state levels are all important sources of social learning.
In short, public opinion is not overtly hostile to the prospect of gov- ernment action on the matter of iden- tification " nor can support merely be taken for granted. Despite signifi- cant pockets of opposition and after much parliamentary review and mod- ification, the British government is now proceeding to implement a national card, and the prospects for success are improved by enhanced public awareness and scrutiny. The London transit bombings of last July 7 were a seminal moment in shaping public opinion.
The new mandatory I.D. card in Great Britain accompanies plans to adopt biometrically based, electronic passports, a trend in keeping with broader European policy, as well as pressure from the United States on visa-exempt countries to incorporate such measures. A new pilot initiative involving the US, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore is designed to facilitate a global electronic passport (the New Zealand passport is based on technology provided by the Canadian Bank Note Company, a privately held corporation).
Canada risks becoming a laggard in such matters, as much of the cur- rent discussion pertaining to identifi- cation stems from US-based pressures around border security. The stakes are much higher and a fuller and richer debate is required.
As the Government of Canada pon- ders its next move, there are four foun- dational issues that should frame a public discussion and a reasoned appraisal of options.
The first issue pertains to purpose: what is the objective of any new I.D. system? An initiative headed up solely by the minister of public safety suggests security as the driving force. While improved security may be one variable, it is likely not the exclusive reason for strengthening the governance mechanisms for managing identity. Much of the public sector’s service delivery agenda also hinges on such action.
The federal government would thus be well-advised to assign to a group of ministers, via a special task force or com- mittee, the framing of any proposed debate in the most encompassing man- ner possible. The recognition of trade- offs between service improvement, privacy and security should be corre- spondingly framed via such a multi- dimensional policy framework.
The second issue is one of scope " across both transnational and inter- governmental planes. Canada-US rela- tions and changing continental governance dynamics are clearly of profound importance, but so too is the need for wider global interoperability. Is it sufficient, then, to augment the technological capacities of passports and new immigrant cards federally (reducing their cost via expanded vol- umes of production), or is something more required domestically?
Anything more surely requires provincial collaboration in order to examine the linkages between provin- cially administered documents, such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses and health cards, and any new federal initia- tive. Any new federal card matters less than its insertion into a national frame- work of interoperability. Here too there are both service and security provisions, but there are also profoundly political questions about jurisdiction and accountability across a more seamless governance environment.
The recently created Council on Identity, comprising provincial and federal officials, could play a leading role here, provided it emerges as a visi- ble and politically-empowered body to lead the domestic side of the discussion in terms of how Canada’s public sector is likely to function in the future. A genuine partnership across federal and provincial jurisdictions is essential, as a purely federal initiative would cause resentment and confusion, weakening the public sector as a whole.
The third issue is managerial and operational competence. Any identity scheme involving new or existing cre- dentials will require a carefully designed and well managed technical apparatus involving not only government staff, but also private sector experts.
With cost estimates for a new I.D. scheme ranging as high as $7 billion, experiences such as the federal gun registry are likely to fuel skepticism as to the government’s capacity to effi- ciently design and implement not only the issuance of any new card (or an alternative device), but also the database and networked information systems across federal and provincial authorities in order to make use of it. Data security and integrity are also of paramount importance.
A new, partially independent and inter-governmental entity may well be required, one that could benefit from greater operational authority and col- laborative autonomy. Political over- sight could be administered via the aforementioned Council on Identity, or an alternative means of involving ministers in the direction-setting of this new body.
Ministerial oversight is insuffi- cient, however. The fourth foundational issue that must be examined is the need for ongoing public involvement in overviewing the design, construction and implementa- tion of any new identification system. In the era of the Internet, which is fuelling demand for more openness and public participation, the requisite levels of trust can only come about from shared mechanisms of democrat- ic governance involving both elected officials and citizen’s representatives.
A citizen’s advisory body could serve as a crucial interface between governments and the public on a host of sensitive matters, particularly those pertaining to privacy. Difficult policy choices would enjoy greater legitimacy and acceptance if public involvement in policy-making were to be institu- tionalized on an ongoing basis. Parliamentary debate and oversight would also be enhanced.
Together, these four essential issues reframe the debate away from the simplistic and overly charged ques- tion of whether a new I.D. card is a US requirement to one encompassing a fuller spectrum of international and domestic considerations. Only an inclusive, discursive and collaborative approach can maximize our collective prospects for security without sacrific- ing freedom and democracy.