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Politics Canada vastly expands data collection of travellers, boosts spy agency budget

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a news conference in Toronto on Thursday, June 4, 2015.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada is vastly expanding the collecting of fingerprints and digital photos from foreigners seeking to enter the country as the federal government aims to broaden its ability to catch terrorists, fraudulent immigrants and jihadis returning from battles overseas.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on Thursday that Canada will start gathering biometric information from all foreign travellers entering on a visa and arriving at the country's biggest airports. This will cover the majority of foreign arrivals.

Mr. Harper also trumpeted new counterterrorism spending announced in the 2015 federal budget for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, an increase that amounts to $137-million over five years and $41-million a year afterward. As well, the government is giving the Canada Revenue Agency about $10-million over five years so that it can devote more effort to thwarting terror financing activities.

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The campaign-style event was an attempt by Mr. Harper, who is seeking re-election this fall, to burnish his credentials as a tough-on-terrorism leader. The announcement took place in the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence, the seat held by Finance Minister Joe Oliver. Mr. Oliver may face a challenge from Eve Adams, an MP who left the Conservatives and is seeking the Liberal nomination in the riding.

Ottawa currently collects fingerprints and photographs from travellers hailing from 29 countries, including Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan.

The number of targeted countries will be expanded to about 150, or every jurisdiction where citizens are obliged to obtain a visa before they visit Canada. This includes those applying for a work or study permit, as well as applicants for temporary visitor visas or permanent residency. Foreigners are charged for the cost of this biometric data gathering and the current fee is $85 a person or $170 per family.

Mr. Harper framed the big increase in the scope of biometric screening as necessary because the security risks faced by Canada are greater now.

"Canada did not invent jihadist terrorism. And Canadians did nothing to attract their hate towards our country. But we cannot just pretend it does not exist. Our government, instead, has chosen to attack it by being vigilant and by taking concrete actions such as by taking the measures I've announced," the Prime Minister said.

"Our government will not accept the idea of people abusing our border or our immigration system – abuse that would subvert our national interests, undermine our values [and] attack our communities, our families and our friends."

Canada has become a bigger target for extremists because it is bombing Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria and lending its special forces soldiers to assist Kurds trying to beat back the extremist group that seized control of significant territory in the region last year. In response, Islamic State forces have called on adherents to attack Canadians. Two soldiers in Canada were killed in October by self-professed jihadis.

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Ottawa is also concerned about the threat posed by people who have travelled overseas to fight jihad and then return, having become even more radicalized and posing a threat at home. Last fall, security officials estimated that 80 individuals had travelled abroad to participate in terrorist activity in the Middle East and North Africa and have since returned to Canada.

Mr. Harper insisted that foreigners' privacy will be respected under Canadian law. "That is our obligation … and we're fully in compliance or in agreement with those principles."

The fingerprints and photos will give Canadian authorities more tools to verify the identity of those entering the country and to detect forged passports or other documents. Applicants must allow their fingerprints and photos to be taken at overseas visa-application centres, and when they arrive here, a Canada Border Services Agency officer will verify that they are same people who applied for the visa.

The government is concerned that the existing biometric screening requirements for 29 countries are not sufficient because would-be fraudsters may be avoiding using identity documents from those nations and instead trying to enter Canada through countries not already on the target list.

The biometric screening measures are also aimed at foreigners convicted of crimes in Canada who have been deported but try to return here. In 2012, Ottawa dubbed one duo convicted of armed robbery and forcible confinement the "yo-yo bandits" because they had each been deported three times and returned.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Border Services Agency and the Department of Citizenship and Immigration are jointly managing the screening. The government is keeping this biometric information on a database that may be shared with the RCMP and other law-enforcement agencies.

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The Department of Citizenship and Immigration says the biometric screening measures in place since 2013 flagged 300 individuals seeking asylum in Canada who had already claimed asylum in the United States, 750 individuals who were fingerprinted by U.S. authorities for law-enforcement reasons and almost 600 people who had "significant discrepancies in their identity information."

It also said it was able to identify about 60 per cent of those applicants who had a criminal record but who did not indicate they had been previously convicted or charged with an offence on their visa application.

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