Homeland security, and specifically changes to passports rules and formats, is starting to get in the way of how Canadians do business.
A recent meeting in Calgary was supposed to include a noted French medical expert who had planned to travel up from California. However, his older French passport was not machine readable. When he first entered the U.S., he was told that he could not re-enter the country on that document. So he had to attend the Calgary meeting by videoconference.
He's lucky to be in the U.S. at all with that passport. The U.S. State Department confirms that "the previous one-time exemptions for first-time VWP (visa waiver program) travellers without MRPs (machine-readable passports) ended June 26, 2005.”
People from the 27 visa waiver countries such as France who don't have MRPs are now supposed to be denied boarding at the point of embarkation.
Canadians will need a passport to enter the U.S by air or sea after Dec. 31, 2006. All border-crossing methods will be included a year later. And Public Security Minister Anne McLellan has announced the Americans may soon need passports to enter Canada.
The U.S.-based National Business Travel Association says it is concerned that the recent changes to enhance the security of the visa and passport system "could hinder open and efficient international travel and slow the country's economic recovery."
Like it or not, issues of "homeland security" almost always trump concerns about business travel. The recreational travel industry is also worried about stricter travel document requirements. If a family has to shell out hundreds of dollars to get passports for everybody, they just might skip that trip to Disneyland or Banff.
Big changes are coming in passport technology. To combat passport fraud, the U.S. is moving to colour shifting ink, microprinting, latent image lettering and a security laminate over the biographic data page that includes optical variations.
The most controversial change is a plan to embed a radio frequency ID (RFID) chip in the back cover of U.S. passports in the very near future. Of course, they won't actually be calling them RFID chips, because that's a huge red flag to privacy advocates.
Frank Moss, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services, was careful to use the term "contactless chip" when discussing the new U.S. passport at Computers, Freedom and Privacy 2005, a conference of computer privacy experts held in Seattle in April. He explained that the chip would contain "the same data as found on the data page of the passport.”
This includes a photo, which can be scanned by facial recognition software.
Privacy advocates scored some major hits against the U.S. State Department's plans at the CFP conference. Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program for the American Civil Liberties Union, was able to demonstrate that the proposed passport chip could be read at a distance of several feet, not a few inches as the government claimed.
This opens up the possibility of someone standing in line "skimming" the passport data of innocent bystanders. Since the chip would contain key identification data, plus a high-quality digital photograph, it could be a gold mine for identity thieves or someone seeking to counterfeit a valid passport.
As a "worst-case" scenario, some even suggested that terrorists could walk down a hotel corridor and identify the Americans by their chip'-bearing passports. Moss dismissed this as "nonsense," noting that there are "anti-skimming" materials in the cover that make the passport unreadable unless it is being held open.
However, the U.S. is now re-evaluating its strategy for electronic passports, even as it moves ahead with a plan to deploy them in 2006. In testimony before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives homeland security committee in late June, Moss said that "the department is also seriously considering the adoption of basic access control (BAC) technology to further strengthen the privacy of the data contained on the chip."
BAC has been called a "Rube Goldberg approach," after the wacky invention of insane contraptions.
Essentially, BAC requires the border officer first to scan the machine-readable text on the passport, which then unlocks the RFID chip for reading. Sure, this may counteract skimming, but why not just read all the necessary data during the first contact off a magnetic strip or something?
Part of the answer is hinted at in Moss's testimony, where he notes that "the department decided to require 64 kilobytes of writeable memory on the contactless chip in the event that we subsequently decide to introduce additional biometrics."
A chip of that size could certainly contain a lot of data, including fingerprints, iris scans, a log of border crossings, health information, etc. Privacy advocates see a huge minefield here.
Canada has taken something of a "wait-and-see" attitude with regard to implementing electronic passports. Passport Canada spokesman Dan Kingsbury confirms that there is a pilot e-passport project planned for early next year and that it will involve Canadian diplomats. He says Canada's electronic passports will also use a contactless chip that will contain the information on the data page plus a digital photo, and the information will be encrypted.
Kingsbury doesn't have a specific date for when electronic passports will be issued to ordinary Canadians. However, he assures us that our existing passports will remain valid until they expire.
It's worth noting that no amount of high technology can take the place of some common sense at the border. Dr. Rajaa Khuzai, a female doctor who has served on Iraq's governing council, was initially denied entry to Canada, where she was slated to, among other things, speak to the Rotary Club of Calgary.
Upon investigation, it turned out that Canadian officials often refuse such requests, apparently out of fear that Iraqi nationals will come to Canada to try to sneak into the U.S. The irony in this case was that Khuzai was coming to Canada from Houston. Some high-level intervention sorted this out, and she was able to make her speech, which ironically dealt with the lack of basic freedoms in countries such as Iraq.
North Americans have always considered freedom to travel as a fundamental right.
Four years after Sept. 11, balancing security and liberty has become a major challenge for society. Passport technology is one of the first places where the security rubber will hit the business road, and it bears very close watching.
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)