Canadian passports exposed to security risks under new processing system

At least 1,500 Canadian passports have been produced under a flawed new system that has opened the door to fraud and tampering, CBC News has learned. Internal documents reveal the program was rushed into operation in May, despite dire warnings about security risks.

New passport system rife with glitches, security gaps in 1st production phase, internal reports say

New passport system rife with glitches, security gaps in 1st production phase, internal reports say 2:13

At least 1,500 Canadian passports have been produced under a flawed new system that has opened the door to fraud and tampering, according to documents obtained by CBC/Radio-Canada.

Internal records from Citizenship and Immigration Canada reveal the processing program was rushed into operation on May 9, 2015, despite dire warnings from senior officials that it was not ready and could present new security risks.

One government source told CBC/Radio-Canada there are concerns that passports produced under the new system could wind up in the wrong hands.

Internal reports warn these problems endanger the security of the Canadian passport.

Since the launch of the new system, officials have been scrambling to fix hundreds of glitches and seal security gaps. Weeks after the new process was brought on line, there were calls to stop production.

Those recommendations were ignored, and the passports continue to be issued in the first phase of production under the new system, designed to enhance security and integrate with other global programs. 

Passports could be altered after approval

Numerous reports show that during a period of several weeks, it was possible for Citizenship and Immigration employees to alter the photo on a passport after it had been approved. And there are numerous reports of discrepancies between information contained in the database and what actually appeared on a passport.

The system that we have in this country is as good as any in the world.- Rob Nicholson, foreign affairs minister

In some cases, information disappeared from the system, making it difficult to verify if the applicant had used questionable guarantors or had made repeated claims of lost or stolen passports in the past.

That information acts as a safeguard to flag potential problems with applications.

Responding to the CBC report during a campaign event in Etobicoke, Ont., today, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson said ensuring the Canadian passport is secure is a top priority.

Nicholson says Canada's passport system is as good as any other country. 0:21

"Any mistake, any problems are quickly looked into and remedied," he said. "The system that we have in this country is as good as any in the world, and I'm confident that will continue."

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said the government should focus on closing security gaps rather than taking away civil liberties with anti-terror legislation.

"Before bringing in something like Bill C-51 that seriously compromises our rights and freedoms in Canada, the  government should take care of what already exists, like making sure that our passport system is solid, that it's airtight and that it doesn't have any security leaks of its own," he said during an event in Montreal.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair says Conservatives should have focused on making passport system more secure, rather than introducing new security legislation. 0:37

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander declined a request for an interview. A spokeswoman for the department insisted that passport security has not been compromised by the new system.

"The Canadian passport is, and will remain, one of the most secure travel documents in the world," said Nancy Caron in an emailed response. "CIC has been moving towards an increasingly integrated, modernized and centralized working environment across many of its business lines, including the passport program."

'Great risk' to Canadians' safety

But at a time of heightened global security and steps to strengthen passports, the reports raise an alarm for one security expert.

David Charland, a former analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said the new system removes critical checks and balances that could allow undesirables to enter Canada or radicals to exit the country. It could also create headaches for law-abiding Canadian travellers with mistakes on their passport caused by the new system.

They could be held up at border points and even subject to interrogation, he warned.

The security gaps also open the door for organized criminals or extremists to corrupt ministry employees to produce illicit passports, which are extremely valuable and in high demand in the global black market.

"It is the most secured document for Canadians, and it's often serving Canadians abroad, and it's often used by Canadians to obtain other documents such as a driving licence, for instance," he told Radio-Canada's Brigitte Bureau. "So, the fact that there is a problem with the Canada passport database currently is, in my humble opinion, a great risk for the safety of Canadians."

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.

The ministry has acknowledged problems with the system, but said migration to the new process is being phased in to allow "course corrections" as necessary to ensure there are no security issues. Under the controlled test environment, every file was reviewed for quality assurance, including photo verification, according to the department.

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