The federal government's move to expand its power to collect biometric information on visitors to Canada is giving rise to privacy concerns and calls for closer scrutiny.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper is defending the budget bill provisions, saying "all privacy and legal standards" will be respected. 

The government currently collects a digital photograph and 10 fingerprints to verify the identity of foreign nationals from 29 countries and one territory when they apply to temporarily visit, study or work in Canada.

The changes proposed in the government's 167-page omnibus budget bill would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to allow the collection of biometric information from any person who applies to come to Canada.

Once an applicant is accepted, "further" biometric information could be collected "for verification purposes."

The government expects that by 2018-19 it will be collecting biometric data from 2.9 million people annually.

Sonia Lesange, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, told CBC News in an email that a digital photo and fingerprints are "the only biometrics data applicants will have to provide." She said visitors who travel here without visas, such as Americans and Western Europeans, would be exempt from biometric screening.

Harper 20150604

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks about expanding the use of biometrics at a speech in Toronto on Thursday. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

But such details are not spelled out in the proposed amendments and would be deferred to future regulations — after the budget bill is passed.

During an announcement in Toronto Thursday, Harper said Canada already has access to the biometric data of other countries. Canada's data, he told reporters, would need to be shared "to some degree" to verify identities and secure the border from "terrorists who wish to enter."

"We'll make sure people are who they say they are. Make sure the person who arrives in Canada is the same person who applied for the visa overseas," he said.

"You can fake your name, you can fake your documents but you cannot fake your fingerprints."

'Special precautions' needed: privacy watchdog

The proposed changes did not go unnoticed by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and the Canadian Bar Association, neither of whom was scheduled to appear before MPs or senators who were studying the amendments last week.

Daniel Therrien, Canada's privacy watchdog, sent a letter to parliamentarians this week to ask about the extent of the changes following testimony by government officials.

Chris Gregory, director of identity management and information sharing with the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, told parliamentarians over the course of two days last week that the full extent of the changes would go into effect in "a global rollout" by 2018-19.

"We will be fingerprinting 2.9 million people [annually]. That will constitute all people making a temporary resident visa application: all students, all workers and all refugees." Gregory said that would give the government time to implement a system "with world-class privacy protections."

Popular use of biometrics

The government has already introduced biometric passports, otherwise known as ePassports, which contain digital pictures. It has also used facial recognition technology since 2009. Canadian citizens or permanent residents who fly frequently between Canada and the U.S. and have NEXUS or CANPASS cards are already subject to iris scans.

Therrien said while his office understands the challenges posed by identity verification and document fraud, "special precautions should be taken into account when collecting biometric information."

"We want to ensure that the legal standards, values and rights established in Canadian privacy law for the treatment of personal information are not eroded and that any sharing of personal information with other jurisdictions or states complies fully with Canadian standards of protection," Therrien said.

Tom Mulcair says 'no case' to increase biometric data collection1:39

Limits are a 'critical element'

The Canadian Bar Association urged the government to narrow the scope of the amendments and hold further consultations.

Deirdre Wade, the chair of the CBA's privacy and access law section, said in a separate letter to parliamentarians, that identifying "a specific and limited purpose" for the changes is "a critical element missing" from the changes in the budget bill.

Exchange Finger Scanner

The government wants to collect biometric information from more people entering Canada. It currently collects a digital photograph and 10 fingerprints to verify the identity of foreign nationals from 29 countries and one territory when they apply to temporarily visit, study or work in Canada. (Chris Machian/Associated Press)

The proposed amendments "would create a non-exhaustive, open-ended list of applications subject to collection of personal biometric information for 'verification' purposes."

Expanding the framework for biometric screening in this way, Wade wrote in the letter dated June 2, "undermines the essential privacy principle of collecting the least amount of personal information required."

The CBA repeated its view that omnibus bills also leave parliamentarians "inadequate" time to study the proposed changes and receive meaningful input, and shouldn't be used to to make substantive changes to laws "unrelated to finance, taxation or spending" — especially when there are privacy concerns.

Information sharing with RCMP flagged

Irene Mathyssen, the NDP caucus chair, said even Foreign Affairs raised privacy concerns about the use of facial recognition technology. 

"Warnings by [Foreign Affairs] signal that expanding the collection of biometric information can't be taken lightly," she said in an interview with CBC News.

Richard Kurland, an immigration lawyer and policy analyst who testified before the Commons citizenship and immigration committee last Thursday, did not object to the amendments.

But he did express concern with an amendment pertaining to the sharing of information between immigration officials and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Under the proposed changes, the RCMP would have access to "biometric information and any related personal information that is collected under this act and provided to it for the enforcement of any law of Canada or a province."

Kurland said one's biometric and personal information could go "out the door to other countries" because the RCMP has sharing agreements in place with other domestic and foreign partners. "Citizenship and Immigration Canada would become a proxy for the RCMP," Kurland told CBC News.

'Dangerous, divisive game'

Liberal immigration critic John McCallum said limits are needed on how much biometric and personal information is shared between immigration officials and the RCMP, but otherwise had no problems with the proposed changes.

RAW: Alexander says govt consulted Privacy Commissioner on biometrics1:19

In St. John's Thursday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said that the budget bill was a "good way of shutting the door on a lot of people visiting Canada" and said the government had not demonstrated the need for these measures, which in his view have very little to do with the safety of Canadians.

"This is a theme that Harper is planing to hammer from now until October 19," he said. "He wants Canadians to be afraid. He wants them to fear people coming from other countries."

"He's playing a very dangerous, divisive game threatening Canadian peace and security and our role in the world with the types of themes that he's chosen to play."

See Division 15 in C-59 below to read about the amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act:

Bill C-59: Economic Action Plan 2015 Act

CBC is not responsible for 3rd party content

With files from Haydn Watters