c/o CanWest News Washington
WASHINGTON — Seeking to enhance its efforts to crack down on fraudulent refugee claims, the Harper government on Tuesday announced it has struck a deal to share fingerprint information on asylum seekers with the United States.
Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan made the announcement following a bilateral summit here with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Under the protocol, the U.S. will join a biometric data-sharing initiative Canada had already launched last summer with the United Kingdom and Australia.
"Biometrics continue to be a powerful tool to prevent terrorists and criminals from crossing our shared border and preventing identity theft and asylum fraud," Napolitano said at a news conference with Van Loan.
Canada's privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, had expressed a series of concerns about the biometric data sharing when the plan was first announced in August. Stoddart's office questioned Ottawa about the need to collect fingerprints and sought assurances the personal information gathered would not be used for secondary purposes.
"While we are still reviewing their response, on the surface of it, it appears they have addressed most of our concerns," said Anne-Marie Hayden, a spokesperson for the privacy commissioner.
"They have advised us that under the protocol, biometric information will only be used for immigration and nationality issues. They have also told us that biometric matching information will only be one of many elements considered when assessing a file."
The privacy commissioner's office is still awaiting a response, however, on how Citizenship and Immigration Canada "plans to address our concerns about how refugees, a very vulnerable population, will be notified about the collection and use of their biometric information," Hayden said.
Napolitano said the U.S. will dispatch its chief privacy officer to Ottawa in early December for discussions with Canadian officials. "As we share information, we are committed to protecting privacy and civil rights," she said.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has argued biometric data sharing on refugee claimants dramatically increases the government's ability to identify foreign nationals who try to hide their past when seeking to enter Canada.
His office says the agreement allows countries to check each other's fingerprint databases but doesn't give them unfettered access to the information.
"Previous trials show that biometric information sharing works," Kenney said in a statement Tuesday. "The data sharing helps uncover details about refugee claimants such as identity, nationality, criminality, travel and immigration history, all of which can prove relevant to the claim."
When Canada, the U.K. and Australia initially signed the agreement last summer, they sought to allay privacy concerns by agreeing no central database of fingerprints would be created.
The information-sharing pact is part of a broader government initiative to introduce biometrics into Canada's immigration and refugee screening system — a plan that continues to raise red flags for privacy advocates.
"We have made them aware of our concerns with respect to what seems to be a general trend toward an increased collection of biometric information," Hayden said.