Last Updated on December 1, 2013 by Steven Meurrens

[The following article of mine was published in Canadian Immigrant Magazine.]

Canada has joined the United States, Japan, most of Europe and Australia in requiring biometric information from certain foreign nationals.

Biometrics is the measurement of unique physical characteristics, such as fingerprints and facial features, for the purpose of verifying identity. Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s (CIC’s) goal in requiring that certain foreign nationals provide biometrics is to make it more difficult for individuals to use another person’s identity, and to prevent criminals, deportees and previous failed refugee claimants from (re-)entering Canada using false identification.

By Dec. 11, citizens of the following countries will be required to give their biometrics (fingerprints and digital photograph) when they apply for a visitor visa, study permit or work permit: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Laos, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Vietnam and Yemen.

How biometrics will work

Applicants from the above-listed countries will be required to go to a Visa Application Centre (VAC) or a visa office (if a VAC is not available) to give their fingerprints and have their photographs taken. Digital copies will be sent to the Royal Canadian Mountain Police and to CIC, who will then check the fingerprints against criminal, refugee and visa application records. When successful applicants arrive at Canadian ports of entry, the Canada Border Services Agency will use the photograph and/or fingerprint to verify the identity of individuals.

Because of the biometrics requirement, it will no longer be possible for people from the above-mentioned countries to submit paper applications directly to a Canadian embassy or consulate. Instead, these individuals will have to apply in person at VACs. Online applicants will also receive instructions to appear at a VAC to provide their fingerprints.

The biometrics fee will be $85 per person. This fee is in addition to the visa/permit application fee. Individuals will need to give their biometrics, and pay the fee, each time they apply for a visa or permit, making the value of multiple-entry visas that much greater.

CIC’s goal is that by 2014 there will be more than 133 VACs in 96 countries with biometric capabilities. Unfortunately, until this goal is realized, people in countries including Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Vietnam will actually have to leave their country in order to provide their biometrics at a VAC or Canadian Consulate which has biometric capabilities.

Applicants under the age of 14, over the age of 80, diplomats and people who are already in Canada are exempt from the requirement.

Sharing data with the U.S.A.

As of writing, the CIC website states that “your fingerprints, photograph, and the personal information you gave in your application will be handled in line with Canada’s privacy laws.” The website does not mention that on Oct. 4, 2013, the Government of Canada announced new regulations that will expand the scope of sharing biometric information with the United States.

Biometric-based immigration information sharing with the United States will be implemented in 2014. The new regulations authorize the sharing of information between the governments of Canada and the United States to support each government’s assessment of visa applications, examinations of admissibility, and to generally ensure accuracy and reliability. Where a biometric match is established, the information that may be shared includes the immigration status of the individual, reasons for previous refusals, previous admissibility decision and general information relevant to admissibility.

As well, where there is a biometric match involving a refugee claimant, the reasons for the refusal of a refugee decision will be shared.

Information sharing will be query based. However, the Government of Canada, in releasing the proposed regulations, announced that it is creating an IT system capable of sending and receiving electronic queries on all applications made by national who provide biometrics.

More sharing to come

While Canada’s expanded information sharing as announced in the new regulations is currently limited to the United States, it will likely soon be expanded to the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. These five countries are all part of the Five Country Conference, and in 2009 signed a joint agreement to pursue biometric data sharing for immigration purposes.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that the expanded use of biometrics and information sharing will upset the Canadian public. In an age where people happily give their fingerprints to multinational corporations so that they can unlock their iPhones and BMWs, it is unlikely that governments collecting them for the purpose of maintaining border integrity will be too disquieting.