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Canada Canada pursues wider biometric data sharing with Five Eyes allies

The Communications Security Establishment Canada complex in Ottawa is seen on Nov. 29, 2013.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

Canada is eyeing greatly expanded sharing of immigration information — such as fingerprints of visa applicants — with not only the United States but other key allies.

An internal memo prepared for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander says the government is building an information technology system that could be used for the systematic exchange of biometric data with Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

"Systematic sharing is preferable to manual case-by-case sharing because it can generate faster responses and be done at higher volumes," says the briefing memo, obtained under the Access to information Act.

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The federal government is already pursuing wide-scale sharing of immigration information with the United States under the highly publicized perimeter security pact. Beginning this year, the fingerprints of visa applicants to Canada from more than two dozen countries will be checked against a U.S. database that includes the prints of immigration violators, criminals and known or suspected terrorists.

The federal privacy commissioner has expressed concerns about high-volume, routine information sharing with other countries, saying it may be impossible to control what happens to that data once sent abroad.

The government says such data-sharing is essential to fight fraud and abuse of Canada's immigration system. Biometric information — unique identifiers such as an iris scan or a fingerprint record — is considered especially useful.

Lately there has been intense scrutiny of Canada's security relationship with its closest allies — collectively known as the Five Eyes — due to intelligence leaks by former American spy contractor Edward Snowden.

Less well known is that these allies co-operate on border and immigration issues under the umbrella of the Five Country Conference. Canada assumes chairmanship of the conference this year and will host representatives from Washington, London, Canberra and Wellington.

Through a protocol initiated in 2009, Canada can share about 3,000 fingerprint records annually with each conference partner. The information has revealed cases of inconsistent identity, fraud, criminality and other data that immigration officers can use to make better decisions, says the memo to Alexander.

Canada plans to quadruple its sharing of biometric information to 12,000 cases in the lead-up to full-scale information exchange with the U.S. by the fall of this year, the memo says. It adds that while the new arrangement with the Americans is a priority, Canada is creating a computerized system "that can be expanded to support systematic sharing" with other Five Country Conference members.

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In the meantime, Canada is updating arrangements with the other partners "to allow for greater manual immigration information sharing," the memo says.

Canada says its agreements have strict privacy safeguards to limit and protect the personal information exchanged.

However, the privacy commissioner's office has raised concerns that once such information goes beyond Canada's borders, "it may be impractical or impossible to prevent unauthorized uses, disclosures or transfers of that information, or to ensure that it is properly protected."

The commissioner also says the exchange of such data with the United States may greatly increase the volume of "derogatory information" about visa applicants from other countries. It has urged Citizenship and Immigration to ensure only accurate and relevant information is used to make decisions.

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