Making travel a safer bet

Security may be the hottest topic in IT right now. Newer, better, stronger products are in demand as businesses and governments struggle to protect their own.

Gary McDonald said the Canadian passport office was already thinking about upgrading its system when the events of Sept. 11 raised everyone’s concerns.

McDonald, director of corporate planing and executive services for the passport office in Ottawa, said there were a number of long-term projects in the works, including upgrading its information gathering software.

“There are two aspects to passport security,” McDonald said. “One is the physical security of the book itself and the other is the processes surrounding how one obtains a book.”

He added that when they approach security, they do it with those two objectives in mind.

“We’ll be coming out with a new book in the spring. The current book was launched in 1993. We want to keep abreast and ahead of emerging technologies in printing,” he said.

“In terms of processes, certainly our objective in determining whether an applicant is eligible really revolves around confirming that the applicant is a Canadian citizen and that they are who they say they are.”

In that vein, the Canadian passport office has been working with AiT Corp. in Ottawa for almost 10 years, building a system for identifying people and issuing high security documents. The system is called Iris, which AiT markets as GENIE (generic issuing environment).

Bernie Ashe, president and CEO of AiT, said the Canadian government has a very sophisticated system for capturing application data about citizens, and vetting and verifying the contents of those applications.

And you are?

“With the passport, you have to get someone to guarantee your identity. All of this information is maintained digitally in the passport office. Once they’re satisfied that a document should be issued, then the personalization, the data in the passport book, is done in a secure way,” Ashe said.

AiT was recently awarded a $1.7 million contract to help make the passport more secure.

Ashe noted that the things they are doing, which will be rolled out in April or May, are upgrades the passport office wanted to do for a long time. “I think Sept. 11 was just the impetus to drive forward the funding, Ashe said.

“We’ve continued to build new features in the Canadian passport office’s application. This new announcement is providing them with some enhanced security features to deal with their desire to be extra careful with the issuance of travel documents to Canadian citizens.”

Since 1999, Iris has allowed passport office employees to scan an application form and the applicant’s photo into the system and check for previous matches under that name, address, etc. McDonald said part of their objective is to get more information about individuals, a better history, and to try and raise that level of identity assurance.

Iris is a regular database, originally built on Sybase’s PowerBuilder, that now works off of multiple databases. Some of the new enhancements are Web capabilities and enrolling online, according to Ashe.

“With security in mind, there’s a reluctance to having too much of the process online, but we’re offering that capability.”

Still to come

McDonald would like to see some of the passport processes put online, including renewal, but that will have to wait until the government online initiative has the secure infrastructure in place.

McDonald added that one of the new plans for the office is to speed up the offline renewal process.

“The information that was scanned in is available to our passport examiners. When you come in for your second or future upgrades, they’ll be able to compare your current photo with your previous one, or your signature with your previous one. It provides our staff with immediate access to archival information.

“We’ve always had an archive, it was always there. It goes back many years, but it was on Microfilm. It raises our level of assurance,” McDonald said.

People coming in for their new passports will have to verify their information and submit a new photo. This new renewal system should start coming into play in 2003 as passports issued when the upgraded Iris system was started in 1999 will be up for renewal.

He said continually upgrading Iris gives the passport employees the additional tools to make the correct decision.

Leading the pack

McDonald believes Canada is a leader in passport security. He said the country is recognized as being a leader internationally.

“I think what the software, and having these kinds of systems do, is keep us at the forefront. We are not the only country scanning photos, but Iris provides that leading edge technology. I can’t think of another passport office where I can say they have a better system than we do.”

Joey Roa, and independent security consultant based in Calgary, isn’t so sure. He said Canada definitely has a lot of technical resources that other countries do not.

“If you look at where other nations are going in terms of improving security of their systems and identification, Canada is well-positioned for that,” Roa said.

He noted that true security would have to go beyond the realm of the passport office. “You have to take a macro view. Health will have security issues, passports will have issues, Industry Canada will have issues.”

Roa added we may not be a leader in terms of collaborative security.

“I don’t know if we’ll be a pioneer in that realm. I think we will look to other nations, like Europe or the U.S. I think Canada will be quick to adopt whatever those nations do. We haven’t been true leaders in something like this,” he said.

McDonald agreed it would be great if all agencies were sharing this kind of information. “That’s an issue that’s being discussed. We want to ensure that any sharing that occurs does so within the limits permissible by the privacy act.”

He is looking forward to new research on biometrics as well.

“Our minister announced in December that we have been given some funds to research the use of facial scanning as part of our assurance and issuance process. One of the challenges is impostors. We want to be able to check a photo against the database and see if and individual might exist under a different name.”