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“Enhanced” Licence May Enhance Privacy, Security Risks

Appeared in the Toronto Star on November 17, 2008 as 'Enhanced' Licence Could Boost Privacy, 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).  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.  

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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