The federal government is bringing in major changes to the way Canadian passports are issued, changes that could speed up the renewal process but also invite forgery, fraud and identity theft at a time of heightened global security.
An internal notice from Citizenship and Immigration Canada obtained by CBC News reveals the changes coming this fall would allow online applications and no longer require the return of the old passport — even if it remains valid for six more months.
Instead, applicants will be told to "cut the corners" of the document through an honour system.
"Regardless of the service channel used, applicants who are no longer required to return their passport will have to cut the corners of the passport according to the instructions provided by the passport when their application is submitted to indicate the passport is no longer valid for travel," reads the directive from Robert Orr, assistant deputy minister at Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
The change is to take effect on Nov. 1, 2015, for online applications and Dec. 14, 2015, for paper-based applications that are mailed or handed in to a passport office, according to the document.
Immigration Canada warned about risks
The move comes despite the department's own internal analysis warning of significant security risks.
Another internal document obtained by CBC News, dated April 30, 2014, notes that "establishing or authenticating identity and preventing fraud are two of the reasons for returning previous valid Canadian travel documents."
'For purely monetary considerations … they're ready to sacrifice decades of good relationships with our allies, but more importantly, to jeopardize the integrity of our passport system, putting everybody at risk' – Michel Juneau-Katsuya, security expert
Under the heading "Identified risks of not returning previous travel documents," the report warns that applicants could wind up with two valid travel documents if they renew before their old one expires — and that "increases the opportunities for forgery and fraudulent use of a travel document."
Even though the old passport would be cancelled in the system, it will look like a valid passport, meaning "the holder could travel to any of the countries in the world that do not have an agreement with Canada to share data on cancelled and expired travel documents," according to the April 2014 document.
It says that "non-physical cancellation of the previous book coupled with a name change provides the holder with the ability to create two identities both supported by genuine travel documents."
The change also goes against a recommendation from the International Civil Aviation Organization, which says "the return of the expiring passport with the new application should be required" to combat fraud.
A spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration told CBC News the department regularly updates policies and procedures to improve service delivery and accessibility, to strengthen security and integrity and increase "program efficiencies."
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"However, it would be inappropriate to comment on any policy before it has been finalized," Sonia Lesage wrote in an email. "After changes are finalized CIC announces updates publicly."
Canada's current policy requires an old travel document to be returned with the application for a new one, after which it is cancelled electronically and physically by perforating it with a two-hole punch in a passport office. The document is then securely destroyed or returned to the applicant.
U.K., U.S. and Australia require returns
Canada is part of a five-nations anti-fraud working group that shares information on lost, stolen and revoked travel documents. The U.S., U.K. and Australia all require the return of the old passport.
New Zealand is the only member with an online application system that does not require the old document returned in the renewal process. In that country's system, the old one is electronically cancelled and the applicant is sent a "cancelled" sticker to attach to it.
The Citizenship and Immigration documents point to that country's example, but Ray Boisvert, president of I-SEC Integrated Strategies and a former assistant director of intelligence at CSIS, said New Zealand is in a much different position than Canada as a small Pacific island nation.
"For others who share borders and share air space and also who allow easier transit between our nationals, I think a number of them will look at Canada as being flawed in its strategy, because these documents are becoming the most important pillar of a complex security strategy," he said.
Passports — especially unspoiled ones — are of high value on the black market, especially in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Boisvert said the move creates an "untenable risk" at a time of growing insurgencies, violent extremism and a complex security environment that requires greater co-operation with allies.
After much debate over loss of liberties connected with Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terror legislation, he said this move undermines other security measures Canada has adopted.
Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former CSIS officer and CEO of the NorthGate Group, said the Canadian passport is in high demand worldwide by organized criminals, terrorists and even by foreign intelligence agencies. He called it "reckless" and "absolutely irresponsible" that the department would create a serious security gap.
"For purely monetary considerations … they're ready to sacrifice decades of good relationships with our allies, but more importantly, to jeopardize the integrity of our passport system, putting everybody at risk," he said.
"This will translate into the Canadian passport not being regarded as safe, therefore all Canadians travelling abroad become suspicious, because we cannot guarantee that the passport they have is as secure as it should be," he said.
The Conservative government has made national and global security a top priority while in office, and last month leader Stephen Harper said if re-elected he would introduce legislation making it a criminal offence for Canadians to travel to parts of the world under the control of extremist groups.
"A re-elected Conservative government will designate travel to places that are ground zero for terrorist activity a criminal offence," he said.
From the Citizenship and Immigration Canada documents
Option No. 1 — Status quo of requiring passport holders to return their travel documents
- Allows passport program to take previous travel documents out of circulation and invalidate them in the system.
- Prevents applicants from having two valid travel documents in their possession.
- The application process would not be entirely online, since applicants would have to return their previous passport to a designated location or by mail.
- May reduce the number of online applications.
- May increase application processing time and the number of incomplete applications if the previous passport can not be located.
Option No. 2 — Policy change that does not require passport holders to return their travel documents to the passport program
- In line with New Zealand's current practices.
- Adapted to online service and in line with client services, since clients do not have to return their passport to the passport program.
- The online declaration and the sharing of information about cancelled and expired travel documents would address the risks related to the fraudulent use of passports by a third party.
- Goes against the United Kingdom, United States and Australian current practices, as all three countries require that the most recent travel document, whether valid or expired, be returned. These countries do not offer an online renewal service.
- Could inconvenience travellers crossing a border with their previous passport that has been invalidated in the system.
- Risk of not "catching" applicants that damaged or lost their previous travel documents.