Enhanced drivers licence approval for US Canada border sparks privacy caution

Recent news from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about allowing enhanced driver’s licences to be used as alternative to passports for U.S. – Canada border crossing, renewed talks around the privacy issues surrounding the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.

RFID enables the wireless transmission of data over short distances, through the use of an RFID tag that transmits data, and a reader that receives the data from the tag. This technology is being eyed by Canadian provincial governments as a means to implement high-tech and highly secured driver’s licences.

“What we emphasize is that (RFID) is an information system; it’s not just compartmental or individual technologies. So it’s not just the tag or the reader; it’s an entire information system,” said Michelle Chibba, policy manager with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) of Ontario.

Chibba recommends the government should conduct a privacy impact assessment (PIA) at the initial stages of deploying RFID-enabled driver’s licences. This will allow the government to “really look at privacy and security at the outset.”

Using RFID to transmit personal information contained in the driver’s licence raises security and privacy questions around protecting personal information.

Conducting privacy impact assessments is required for government agencies that are implementing new technologies that will affect the collection, use and disclosure of personal information.

Chibba said the PIA is best done at the early stages of technology implementation. “Even in the design stage, when you are designing the (technology) architecture for example, we find that if you do a PIA it may actually affect or impact the solution that you are going to be deciding upon, because it actually may change the way in which the architecture is built.”

The IPC executive added that the use of encryption technology is necessary with RFID implementation, particularly if the application involves the wireless transmission of highly sensitive data.

“So it’s not just data at rest that you must secure, but you must also secure the data in motion,” said Chibba.

Last week, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff confirmed that enhanced driver’s licences will be among the accepted travel document for Canadians travelling through the U.S. border beginning next year, under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

Provincial governments in Canada have been lobbying the U.S. government to accept high-security driver’s licences as alternative to passports for cross-border travellers.

The Government of British Columbia has been working with the U.S. Washington state to promote the acceptance of enhanced driver’s licences in order to alleviate border crossing congestion, and provide easier access for Americans wanting to attend the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, according to a statement from the B.C. government.

B.C. is expected to launch its RFID-based enhanced driver’s licence in January 2008.

The Ontario government is working towards a similar route for its driver’s licences. Earlier this year, it announced it was creating a high-security driver’s licence with the goal of it also being accepted as a travel document by the U.S. government.

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