“Enhanced” Licence May Enhance Privacy and Security Risks

This week the Ontario legislature will resume debate on Bill 85, proposed legislation that could lead to the creation of an "enhanced drivers licence" in the province (referred to as an EDL).  My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version)  notes that the introduction of the new licence – which will also be available as a photo card for non-drivers – has received little public attention despite the urgent concerns expressed by privacy commissioners and civil liberties groups.  Indeed, barring an unlikely change of plans, the legislation could be passed within a matter of days.

The primary impetus behind the EDL is the increased border security measures between Canada and the United States.  As the U.S. increased identity card requirements for entry into the country (passports are now required at most border crossings), government officials in both countries have sought to develop an alternative to the passport. The EDL, which will embed new technologies including a radio frequency identification device (RFID) within the card, is the outcome of that work.  While the enhanced card will be optional, it is expected that many residents may pay the extra fee for the EDL.  Moreover, Ontarians will not be alone in this regard as other provinces and U.S. states have similar plans.  As Ontario moves closer to an EDL with this new legislation, the concern from the privacy and civil liberties communities – who point to three overarching concerns – have continued to mount.
The first concern is largely procedural.  The introduction of the EDL is viewed as an important development with significant implications for personal privacy.  However, few have participated in a consultation process and the legislative committee considering the proposed legislation allocated limited time to debate and discussion.

The second concern stems from the larger implications of the EDL.  Although the new card is optional, some experts view it as a major step toward a national identity card.  National ID cards have generated heated debate in the past with fears about the privacy and security implications of such schemes.  In fact, after a failed attempt to introduce ID cards in the U.S. under the REAL ID program, some officials have acknowledged that enhanced drivers licences may ultimately serve the same purpose.

The third issue is by far the most important – the privacy implications associated with the use of biometric screening and the embedding RFID tags in the licences.  RFID tags are tiny tracking devices that use radio waves to emit information to an RFID reader. While RFIDs have been innocuously used for inventory management with containerized shipping in the past, their use on identification cards raises a host of privacy concerns.

Earlier this year Canada's federal, provincial, and territorial privacy commissioners issued a joint statement expressing "their significant concerns about privacy and security aspects of EDL programs."  The Commissioners pointed to the long-term retention of Canadian driver data in the U.S., the lack of program oversight, and the use of insecure RFID technology.

Research into the use of RFID has revealed that they are vulnerable to snooping and copying, which may open the door to cases of identity theft or to surreptitious surveillance.  The Ontario government notes that the RFID tag will only contain a numerical identifier (rather than a full personal profile), yet access to the identifier could open the door to misuse.

To guard against unintended access to card information, an RFID with an "on/off" switch could be used.  To date, the government has rejected proposals to use RFIDs with that more updated technology, instead supporting the use of "protective sleeve" that it argues will guard against unwanted surveillance.

Facilitating faster and more secure border controls is unquestionably a worthwhile goal.  Rather than introduce a flawed licence, Ontario Transport Minister Jim Bradley should put the brakes on Bill 85 by first addressing the lingering privacy and security concerns.


  1. Colin McInnes says:

    Forget on/off switches
    Passports and other RFID documents should be built with RFID-blocking sleeves as their cover. So they are inaccessible to passive scanning until you open them up and hold them against the reader, and even then, if you make it face-down, then the cover blocks everything BUT the reader from scanning the tag.

  2. Stirling Westrup says:

    And What of Non-Drivers?
    One of the frequently overlooked problems with issuing EDL’s that become de-facto id cards is that non-drivers are ineligible. The government then finds itself in the position of needing to issue non-driving driving licenses.

    This is not mere speculation either, as Chicago has gone this route. You can’t go into a bar without a drivers’ license, so the city has special non-driving licenses that anyone can apply for, in order to be allowed into bars. Thus, one finds that in Chicago, its now mandatory to have a drinking license in order to drive.

  3. Virtual in Vancouver says:

    Get yer policy out of my privates.
    I wonder if a more reasonable approach to border security might be less costly and more effective than implementing a complete surveillance state.

  4. Sleeves
    I hope they at least include sleeves – otherwise we’ll all be wrapping our licences in tinfoil, what a pain.

  5. George Orwell says:

    1984 nockin on your door
    How is it that all of the so-called conspiracy theorists that I have been checking out for the last years have told us about everything that has happened before it happens. Guys like Alex Jones ( told us this was coming years ago and the real reasons why.I suggest it is time to ditch the ego’s and start paying attention to what is really going on. This is the New World Order that BUSH sr and Gordon Brown keep calling for…the same NWO that we were told would come either by ” consent or conquest”- Warburg

    I for one will be ignoring this license and will stop driving period. Don’t need it to get into bars either as I will be stopping that. If people don’t wake up to the big snow job, it’s all over!

  6. On/Off switch would be great
    @Colin – I don’t think there’s any material out there that is 100% “RFID-blocking”. People can get a big enough antenna and connect to people’s bluetooth phones from a kilometer away (just Google “Bluetooth distance shot”) when the design specs on Bluetooth intend for a range of a few feet. When it comes to wireless devices, there’s no such thing as “range” – just how sensitive an antenna you can put at one end. So even if the RFID-Blocker blocks out most of the signal (stopping conventional readers), I see no reason why a reasonably determined attacker couldn’t get the information they need with a bit of work. An on/off switch is the only thing that could truly, once and for all, stop an attacker.

    @Stirling – isn’t that what is meant by “Which will also be available as a photo card for non-drivers”? That the licenses will be issued as pure photo-ID?

  7. Im with George Orwell. The New World Order is Now. Its time to say no. Have we forgotten what freedom is? Alex Jones says it like it is. pooh hoo if you wish, but its here
    Well we do still have out TV sets, and our sports are really good.

  8. big borther SCREW YOU
    wait till they tell you to embed them into yourself

    that’s when its complete.

    Then they will begin embeding behavioural modification chips into your head. They we all become the perfect slaves.

  9. OH but i am disabled and can’t drive
    the future then means im not a citizen


  10. Scary Stuff and the Alex Jones comments are right on the money!

  11. did anyone feel that? we just lost more freedom with little to no protest.

    “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.”

  12. Paranoid much? says:

    Why do so many people distrust technology? I think a more secure ID card is a good idea, my only concern is whether it’s actually more secure or not. Getting a passport can be a hassle, so having a single card that double-tasks and is available for non-drivers is a great idea. I’m concerned about passive scanning though, the RFID chip should have on/off capabilities. Also it’s good to have multiple kinds of ID cards, because if you lose one, you need others to be able to prove you are who you say you are (Health card, student card, SIN, passport, birth certificate, etc.).

    P.s. If I can implant an ID chip in my arm some day, I totally will! And if you’re so concerned about the government, go get involved with it. The Government is accountable to the people, but only if the people are informed and participate. You don’t get to spew on a blog comment and be done with it, write a letter to your MP (not a bloody email) or call them.

  13. Paranoid much? says:

    also, we haven’t lost any freedom… IT’S VOLUNTARY!

  14. RFID could be really powerful. I’m glad the only thing they want to put on the chip is a serial number, but a protective sleeve is only a temporary fix. The card has to have an on/off function that the card holder can control. It scares me that people only think about the implications of these things today and don’t think about tomorrow. A protective sleeve will greatly reduce the signal to noise ratio of the RFID signal, but it won’t stop it. And even if a tiny signal gets through, it can be picked up with a sensitive enough antenna. Bluetooth was supposed to be short range, less than 3 m. But with an amplified direcitonal antenna, you can pick up a bluetooth signal more than a mile away. And that’s with today’s technology. Tomorrow’s technology maybe able to read an RFID chip through a blocking sleeve inside someone’s pocket. The only thing more dangerous than an insecure radio source on your person is an insecure radio source on your person that you’ve been led to believe is secure.

  15. Sean Mitchell says:

    Oh for God’s sake people
    If RFID scares you so much, simply buy or make an RFID blocking wallet.

    Here’s one:

    Really, no one will take your *legitimate* concerns seriously if you get all up in arms about this.

  16. to the uninformed person who thinks this is some kind of paranoia heres a 1998 study by a professor named kevin warwick at the university of Reading, Berkshire, UK. This should give you insight on RFID technology 10 years ago and what it has/will become

  17. IDforum
    I am glad you covered this issue in your column Michael.

    Readers who are following this issue may also be interested to visit: a non-commercial site based out of the University of Toronto which houses information on issues such as the policy and design of ID documents in Canada.

    Our site also currently hosts a Statement of Opposition to Bill 85 for concerned citizens and organizations.

  18. On/Off switch a farce
    Good god.

    On/Off switches, and tinfoil sleeves won’t do any good for when people who you *have* to present the card information to want to record it in bulk: it’s out of the sleeve, and *they* flip the switch.

  19. the failing with any sleeve / cover is the fact the user, how many people are going to carry there ID Not in there wallet or buy a special wallet
    The most common security breach happen because of user lazieness /habets