Facial recognition technology is coming to Canadian airports this spring

Travellers entering Canada will soon be greeted with new self-serve border clearance kiosks that compare their facial features with the photo stored on their passport.

A new generation of self-serve border kiosks will compare travellers' faces with passports

Toronto's Pearson International Airport is getting 130 self-serve border clearance kiosks with facial recognition technology starting in May. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

Facial recognition technology is coming to major Canadian airports as part of a new traveller screening program under development by Canada Border Services Agency, CBC News has learned.

The technology will be part of a new generation of self-service border clearance kiosks for travellers entering or returning to Canada. The kiosks are being pitched as part of a broader effort to modernize and streamline clearance procedures at Canadian airports, and will eventually replace the more limited kiosks currently in use.

"The new kiosks will improve border security, as well as assist in reducing wait times and congestion at Canada's busiest airports," a statement from CBSA reads.

The kiosks will begin appearing at Ottawa International Airport this spring, according to multiple sources, and the rollout will continue into 2018, CBSA says.

In terms of features to the benefit of CBSA, it's very much about biometrics.— Jean-François Lennon, Vision-Box

The Primary Inspection Kiosk (PIK) program, as it is called, has been in the works since at least 2015, and "will provide automated traveller risk assessment" a CBSA tender describing the program reads.

The facial recognition feature appears to be similar to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's 1-to-1 Facial Comparison Project, which uses facial recognition to compare a traveller's face with the image stored on their electronic passport.

In that case, images are not retained unless the two images do not match very well.

In Canada, however, little is known about how the new kiosks will actually work in practice.

CBSA declined to answer specific questions about the PIK program, stating that "further details will be announced publicly before the official launch," with an announcement to follow "in the coming weeks."

'Very much about biometrics'

International airports in Toronto, Quebec City, and Ottawa are all preparing to install the new kiosks and have tendered requests for suppliers, according to public records, while Vancouver International Airport is developing its own self-service kiosks.

A Portuguese company called Vision-Box is installing 130 kiosks at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. In an interview with CBC News, it offered a glimpse into how the new program will work.

"In terms of features to the benefit of CBSA, it's very much about biometrics," said Jean-François Lennon, the company's vice-president of sales and business development.

Vision-Box has been working closely with CBSA on research and development for two years, he says, and expects its kiosks to begin appearing at Pearson in May.

The president of the union representing 10,000 front-line customs and border agents is concerned that the new kiosks won't be as effective at screening travellers as agents can be. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

According to Lennon, the specifications for CBSA's PIK program outline two phases — facial recognition and fingerprint biometrics.

The kiosks can also capture iris data for those travelling under the NEXUS program.

While CBSA would not elaborate on the PIK program's biometric requirements, a person in the airline industry familiar with the new kiosks confirmed that facial recognition will be part of Phase One. The person could not, however, confirm whether fingerprint biometrics will be a part of Phase Two.

Representatives for the Toronto, Quebec City, Ottawa, and Vancouver airports referred all questions about the PIK program to CBSA.

Vancouver Airport Authority spokesperson Tess Messmer would only say that the group's Borderxpress technology — which is already used in some airport kiosks across Canada — "has the capability to meet any government's — Canadian or other — biometric requirements including facial, iris and fingerprint recognition."

Privacy impact to be assessed

Privacy experts will be watching the program closely to ensure that the kiosks' facial recognition capabilities are being used as intended.

"The problem's going to be, once that's created, the capability is a general one that can be used in other contexts," said Tamir Israel, a staff lawyer with the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. "And historically … once we have the technical capability, we haven't been very good at limiting it to that use."

In 2011, for example, the Insurance Corporation of B.C. offered to give Vancouver Police access to its database of driver licence photos, so that facial recognition software could be used to identify people who participated in that summer's Stanley Cup riots, Israel said.

In the wake of Vancouver's 2011 Stanley Cup riots, and an offer to use a database of driver licence photos for facial recognition purposes, B.C.'s privacy commissioner warned of 'the privacy concern known as "function creep" where a system that holds data collected for one specific purpose is subsequently used for another unintended or unauthorized purpose.' (Geoff Howe/Canadian Press)

Though Vancouver police did not accept the ICBC's offer, B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner ruled that such information cannot be freely provided by a public agency without a court order — especially if it was originally collected for a different purpose. 

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) "was consulted in the fall by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada about a biometric expansion project that involved something called Primary Inspection Kiosks, or PIK," spokesperson Tobi Cohen wrote in an email. "We understand this also involves CBSA, which committed to conducting a PIA on biometric expansion."

Cohen said the office has not received a PIA, or Privacy Impact Assessment, and had no further details to share.

In a statement Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Lisa Filipps would only say that "the purpose of the briefing was to provide a strategic perspective of the project so that the OPC could better understand the various privacy impact assessments that will be submitted as part of this project."

Rise of the machines

The kiosks are also expected to further decrease the number of traveller interviews with border agents at primary inspection, offloading much of that work to the new machines.

"Customs agents are expensive, and this allows them to focus their attention on the passengers that need greater attention while allowing legitimate travellers easier access through the customs process," said Chris Phelan, vice-president of security and industry affairs for the Canadian Airports Council, which counts all of Canada's major airports amongst its members.

Canada Border Services Agency said in a statement that 'the new kiosks will improve border security, as well as assist in reducing wait times and congestion at Canada's busiest airports. (Marie Helene Ratel/CBC)

Asked whether the new kiosks would replace the existing Automated Border Clearance (ABC) kiosks in use at Canadian airports, "Yes," Phelan replied, "and as rapidly as they can."

But Jean-Pierre Fortin, the president of the Customs and Immigration Union which represents 10,000 front line customs and border agents, is concerned that the new machines won't be as effective at screening travellers as agents can be.

In a meeting with CBSA president Linda Lizotte-MacPherson last August, Fortin "raised the safety concerns our members have with the implementation of new technologies," which includes the new kiosks.

According to Fortin, "there are a bunch of things that we're trained to do that a machine cannot replace."


Matthew Braga

Senior Technology Reporter

Matthew Braga is the senior technology reporter for CBC News, where he covers stories about how data is collected, used, and shared. You can contact him via email at For particularly sensitive messages or documents, consider using Secure Drop, an anonymous, confidential system for sharing encrypted information with CBC News.


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