Will Canada become the next country to offer mobile passports? Feds studying idea despite privacy fears

Immigration officials are exploring the idea of allowing Canadians to renew or potentially use their passports via mobile apps on their phones.
Immigration officials are exploring the idea of allowing Canadians to renew or potentially use their passports via mobile apps on their phones. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

If you have a Canadian passport, you know the deal.

Every five to 10 years, you go through the process of filling out forms, gathering photos and references and mailing it all in to Passport Canada, all in the name of renewing the little blue booklet that lets Canadians travel abroad. Once at the airport, you take it out for check-in, during security screenings, to show the gate agent and sometimes even one last time before boarding the plane from the gangway.

But if you could do it all from your phone, would you?

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New public opinion research published by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada suggests officials there are considering whether Canadians should be able to renew their passport via a mobile application, as well as what Canadians’ attitudes are towards the idea of using virtual or mobile passports.

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Through 15 focus groups held across the country earlier this year, participants were asked for their perspectives on what sort of “passport of the future” they would be most interested in using and as with most new technologies, there was general enthusiasm but also a marked wariness about the potential for misuse.

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“While it is evident that convenience is a primary consideration for participants, so are safeguards related to ensuring the security and privacy of information,” read the report of the findings, prepared for IRCC’s Passport Program.

“Moreover, such concerns cannot be attributed to ‘fear of new technology’ among older participants, as negative reaction to the virtual passport was highest among millennials.”

Millennials and those over the age of 58 also said they would not be likely to use a mobile passport option.

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As it stands now, Canada uses what’s known as an ePassport.

Introduced in 2013, passports issued since then contain an electronic chip in the back cover that holds the personal information detailed on the second printed page. Countries including the United States, the United Kingdom and France all use similar models.

The options put before the focus groups, in contrast, raise questions about both whether they could be secure enough to prevent malicious use and fraud, and also whether users would be comfortable with storing the personal and financial information used to get and use a passport on their phone.

Focus group participants were most comfortable with the idea of a passport renewal app and mobile passport and weakest when it comes to using a virtual passport.

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The latter is defined as using the existing ePassport at check-in then having facial recognition set up throughout the airport to track and identify them so they wouldn’t need to take it out and show it again to the gate agents, for example.

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While participants suggested they would be all right with using a passport renewal app or a passport stored on their phone, they were less convinced the ease of use would be worth the security concerns.

“Especially in the case of the virtual passport, concerns related to privacy of personal information, surveillance, and sharing of information weighed heavier in participants’ overall assessments than increased convenience,” the findings said.

The concerns were echoed by Karen Eltis, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in the regulation of new technologies and cyber crime.

She pointed to the challenges of protecting the data used to renew or facilitate use of mobile passports, which might include unchangeable factors like date of birth or biometric information, in a database that could become a rich target for hackers.

“Technology is fast. Security is slow,” she said.

“We have to find a way to marry these. If we’re talking about a database, it’s way more problematic because really, a passport is all-in-one. It’s a proverbial gold mine of information. The complications can be extremely intrusive.”

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Convenience seemed to be the biggest motivator overall to consider any move away from the current passport.

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Participants also suggested ways a mobile app could make other aspects of travelling easier.

For example, participants suggested including the Canadian customs eDeclaration, travel advisories, currency conversion calculators, visa requirement information and the ability to register with Canadian embassies and consulates abroad through the app.

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Mobile passport apps are not yet widespread but are becoming more common, particularly in the United States.

South of the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has officially endorsed an app called Mobile Passport and it’s being used in 25 American airports so far.

Personal data on the app is encrypted and stored by Customs and Border Protection.

Upon arriving back in the U.S. from travel abroad, users head to a designated line and show the bar code associated with their Mobile Passport account to a border agent, who scans it to allow them through.

American citizens with American passports — as well as Canadian citizens with both a Canadian passport and an American B1 or B2 visa — are the only ones who can use that specific app, which was developed in conjunction with Customs and Border Protection by the Airports Council International-North America.

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It’s not clear whether Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is looking to develop its own app for mobile passports or use the existing one.

The focus group findings don’t make specific mention of the existing Mobile Passport app but rather to the concept more broadly.

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