Now Showing: The EDL Security Show

We’re paying for a high-tech Broadway show that’s themed around ’security’, but we’re actually watching the equivalent of a catastrophic performance in a low budget community theater. The price of admission? Only millions dollars and your privacy.

As of June 1, 2009, Canadians and Americans alike require an Enhanced Drivers License (EDL), a NEXUS card, a FAST card, a passport, or a Secure Certificate of Indian Status to cross a Canadian-American land border. In Canada, only Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Manitoba have moved ahead to develop provincial EDLs; the Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island governments have all decided not to provide these high tech, low privacy, cards to the constituencies (Source). To apply for an EDL in a participating province, all you need to do is undergo an intensive and extensive 30 minute face-to-face interview at your provincial equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Your reward for being verbally probed? A license that includes a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag and a biometric photograph. The RFID tag includes a unique number, like your Social Insurance Number (SIN), that is transmitted to anyone with an RFID reader. These readers can be purchased off the shelf by regular consumers, and number your EDL emits is not encrypted and does not require an authentication code to be displayed on a reader. Effectively, RFID tag numbers are easier to capture than your webmail password.

EDLs are an incredibly expensive ’solution’ for individual Canadians to purchase, given that in Ontario alone an EDL will cost almost $30 more than a passport. Further, Manitobans have turned a cold shoulder to these cards; only a few thousand residents have adopted them out of an expected hundred thousand or so. In Ontario, my contacts have told me that the responsible ministry has yet to provide policy documents or manuals to the front line staff who are tasked with issuing these licenses. Without their scripts, how will these staff members play their parts in issuing each Canadian a little piece of the great North American security theater?

EDL programs are big ticket items that Canadian provinces are being pressured to pay for in order to satisfy the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), a unilateral American policy directive. While fiscal conservatives might argue that in this period of reduced government incomes and ballooning debts, such big ticket items should be carefully evaluated, we might ask them why government should be any more careful of spending money on EDLs than it is in otherwise ’securing’ the border? As recently reported by Dean Beeby, $8.7 million dollars have been spent since 2006 on gates, barriers, fences, sirens and signs to catch people who are trying to illegally cross the border. The catch? Gates have fallen on cars. Cameras can’t actually catch the license plates of illegal night-time border crossers. Automated video analysis systems don’t work. It would seem as though the various props of our Broadway security show should be returned to the manufacturer as defective or even dead on arrival!

If broadcasting an equivalent of a radio-accessible SIN and high financial costs to individual Canadians weren’t enough, there are additional privacy-related issues with EDLs. While the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner/Ontario is promising that future generations of EDLs will integrate ‘privacy by design’ principles, insofar as future cards won’t broadcast their unique identification numbers without first being activated, the current licenses that are being deployed in that province are absolutely devoid of any real protections (the much touted ’security sleeve’ is demonstrably faulty). While integrating privacy by design is a positive step forward, Ontario is the only province that has publicly discussed this at length. Moreover, even in Ontario there has been little comment about the worries of government creating massive databanks of facial images that are designed to be rapidly searched. As it stands, facial recognition technologies are sub-par at meeting the expectations that the public has developed from watching 24, Heroes, and other works of science fiction. In fact, massive amounts of research needs to be done to improve accuracy rates of facial recognition technologies, and a large database to conduct tests on to develop the technology is just what the scientist ordered. Thus, while the facial images that are taken of individuals will be of minimal use to government agencies at the moment, we cannot assume that ‘privacy by technological incompetence’ will be something Canadians can rely on over the long term.

Perhaps most importantly, privacy advocates’ underlying worries about these cards have not been addressed. As I have previously noted,

“In the cases of both radio tags and biometric data, there exists a serious danger of function creep. As more and more members of the Canadian and American public carry these devices, increased pressures will extend how these documents are used, exceeding their initial purpose of securing American borders” (Source).

While various RFID proponents have insisted that RFID tags cannot, in practice, be used to track user data, the web cookies that we download after visiting websites were never intended to let companies track us. Just last year however, the Wall Street Journal published an article revealing that, lo and behold, the company that will do no evil (i.e. Google) is using web cookies as an “Internet tracking technology that enables it to more precisely follow Web-surfing behavior across affiliated sites” (Source). RFID tags are meant to track cattle as they move around the world; surveillance is the reason for their very existence. Why would we ever assume that this technology would ultimately be used for some other purpose as soon as it were applied to human targets, when other evidence demonstrates that non-surveillance technologies are readily requisitioned to monitor our daily activities?

This worry about pervasive surveillance is something that Dr. Andrew Clement has discussed in various presentations through the Canadian IDentity Forum. He has noted that, despite government assurances, there is no evidence that real speed enhancements will be realized at the border. At most, Canadians can expect to pass through borders 5-10 seconds faster than they do right now. Moreover, while there are claims that EDLs are somehow ‘more secure’ than present licenses, this is just another part of the script in the Canadian/American security theater. You see, to qualify for an EDL, individuals must show foundational documents (e.g. birth certificates) to prove that they are who they claim to be; where a foundational document is successfully forged the ’security’ offered by the EDL is defeated. Moreover, the RFID tag can be copied, letting another person clone the tag’s unique number. When Ms. Daghum comes to the border with her cloned tag, she can have Ms. Ouziel’s profile brought up on the border guard’s screen. If Ms. Daghum physically appears like Ms. Ouziel, then a border guard could be fooled about the authenticity of the RFID tag based on the information called from government databases. The RFID is insecure and the biometric image currently unreliable — how, again, do these cards actually make us safer (as opposed to making us feel safer) from terror threats?

If high costs, minimal border-crossing efficiencies, unreliable biometric images, and easily duplicated RFID tag numbers aren’t enough to make you wonder about the capacity of EDLs to secure the border, I’ll leave you with two concluding points. RFID tags, and the data that they emit, contribute to what scholars such as David Lyon and Kevin Haggerty have termed ‘the surveillance society’, or a society where “[w]e are inadvertently handing over to centralized authorities an infrastructure of visibility the likes of which no society has ever seen before” (Source). Canadians regularly moan that they can’t protect their own privacy but, by refusing to adopt an EDL and using a passport instead, they will find that protecting their privacy is actually cheaper than buying into the surveillance society. Get a passport, and congratulate yourself on being a privacy advocate by taking yourself out to dinner on your EDL-related savings!

Second, as has been noted by Canadian civil liberties groups;

“[A] passport is an internationally recognized travel document that gives the holder certain rights, while a driver’s licence is not . . . If the U.S. decides to deport a Canadian while she is carrying her passport, she must be deported back to Canada.

A Canadian carrying a driver’s license could be deported to anywhere in the world” (Source).

We are all unfortunately aware of the horrors that can occur when suspected ‘terrorists’ are sent to places such as Syria. While Maher Arar’s case does demonstrate that a passport will not necessarily persuade American authorities to act in within the confines of law, an EDL will not legally persuade foreign authorities that you should be sent to Canada instead of a torture cell in Syria. Even in a world where a passport has diminished legal standing in the eyes of American authorities that diminished standing is better than the absolute lack of legal standing that EDL-holders are left with.

In summation, you’d be well advised not to take part in this most recent act of the Canadian-American security theater. You’ll pleasantly find that there’s a reduced entry fee to the security show with a passport (with money left over to buy a drink and snack!). Far more importantly, the passport might actually prevent the ushers/border guards from deporting you to a truly horrible place to ‘enjoy’ unspeakable acts of barbarity. Be your own privacy advocate, boycott the EDL, and buy yourself a passport if you want to cross a Canadian-American land border.

Christopher Parsons is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria researching ubiquitous digital surveillance, and is a member of the New Transparency Project. Read other articles by Christopher, or visit Christopher's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on June 3rd, 2009 at 1:10pm #

    we canadians are also killing people but are not all that much worried about a revenge attack.
    US is also killing people. Their government is much concerned about a revenge attack.
    when we weren’t killing muslims, we never ever worried about muslims attacking US or canada.
    so, the answer is: let us stop killing muslims in palestine, iraq, afpak and we will once again enjoy peace. tnx

  2. HR said on June 3rd, 2009 at 4:50pm #

    Whether or not “our” government here in the U.S. is killing people abroad, it is still devoted to invading our privacy, always under the guise of “national security”, closely followed with the lame excuse of rooting out those evil drug users and dealers. These enhanced IDs are just another step along the road to our enslavement that began in earnest with the militarization of police during the 70s, ostensibly to fight a “war” on drugs. Soon DNA samples will be taken at birth and stored on computers.

    We morons here in the U.S. don’t give a damn, though. We know perfectly well that “our” government is just trying to protect us, to make us safe, and we happily trade our privacy and freedom for their beneficent efforts. We love being watched on video cameras, love to strip before boarding planes, because we know it is for the greater good. If we didn’t, we would have demanded long ago that these invasive practices be stopped. We are such idiots. I am glad I am old and won’t have to put up with this pathetic population of automatons for much longer. I am sickened.

  3. Byron said on June 4th, 2009 at 9:58am #

    You can prevent other people from reading your EDL (enhanced driver’s license). The EDL becomes RFID invisible when placed in an RFID blocking card sleeve. This does not harm the EDL, which reverts to being readable when removed from the sleeve.

    Smart Tools offers such a sleeve. It is transparent on one side so you can show your card to authorities and still keep RFID off. There’s more info and pictures at

  4. Franklin said on July 8th, 2009 at 12:16pm #

    The biometrics/facial recognition privacy concerns are something a red herring and distraction from the EDL’s RFID beacon.

    I have not seen any EDL proposal or rollout to date that incorporates biometric data on, or in, the actual card.

    I disagree with your assertion that “facial images that are taken of individuals will be of minimal use to government agencies at the moment” because a strong case can be made for using facial recognition algorithms in the back end to automate and speed up the process and veracity of comparing new images against the old ones to ensure that the right people are renewing their cards, as well as for checking that any given driver does not have more than one licence issued ot them. But these are back-end, off-line facial recognition activities that are vetted and processed by trained humans, not the real-time horror story of “I’m-sorry-you-can’t-cross-the-border (or board-the-plane)-because-our-computer-cannot-match-your-live-biometric-sample-against-the-reference-sample-stored-on-your-card-therefore-we-don’t-believe-you-are-who-you-say-you-are-and-must-deny/detain/arrest/deport-you-so-sorry-about-this-you-have-the-right-to-file-a-grievance-complaint-request?” scenario.