TORONTO -- Motorists in Canada's most populous province may soon have to submit biometric information such as eye scans and fingerprints to get a driver's licence, Ontario's transportation minister said yesterday. Just days after Manitoba abandoned a similar plan amid cost and privacy complaints, Harinder Takhar floated the idea of biometrics as a means of ensuring the safety and security of Ontario's drivers.
"We are only exploring the options available to us to improve the safety and the security features of drivers' licences," Takhar said, stressing no final decision has been made.
Takhar said Ontario is working with both Canadian and U.S. groups that are examining common security standards for drivers' licences in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Premier Dalton McGuinty said he's willing to consider the idea if it will improve safety for Ontario residents.
"Am I interested in public safety? You're damn right I'm interested in public safety," McGuinty said. "This is just something that someone is going to present to us for our consideration."
The province is seeking proposals on technology and other features that can be added to drivers' licences and possibly health cards, to improve security and reduce fraud, Takhar said.
Manitoba and Alberta are among those provinces that have taken a close look in recent months at the use of biometrics to improve the security of their government-issued identification cards.
Manitoba abandoned the idea this week amid cost concerns and complaints the scheme would violate the public's right to privacy.
Alberta revamped its driver's licences last year to reduce the risk of fraud and forgery, said government services spokesperson Terry Cunha.
And while fingerprinting and retinal scans aren't part of the changes, facial recognition software will be introduced to the driver's licence system in the spring, Cunha said.
When Alberta motorists get their digital licence photo taken, the software will measure the distance between certain points on the face and archive the information in a database. The next time the person comes in for a licence renewal, the system will be better able to match the new photo to the old one, Cunha said. All the data will be kept in one secure facility.
While Takhar emphasized Ontario's current driver's licences are secure, he said they can be improved with technological innovations.
But NDP house leader Peter Kormos said the technology is still too primitive, and Ontario residents won't go for it.
"I don't even know why these guys are wasting the time and the money investigating it when quite frankly it's never going to fly with the public," Kormos said.
"Ontarians, Canadians don't buy into that Stalinist, Soviet-style intrusiveness."
The province has an opportunity to revamp the way driver's licences are issued in Ontario because the contract expires next year, said Takhar.
Ontario's driver's licences are currently comprised of a single plastic card with a digital photo and holographic images that serve as security features.
The province last edged into the biometrics fray in 2001, when the previous Conservative government considered a so-called "smart card" incorporating a driver's licence, health card and identification card. The plan was scrapped amid cost and privacy concerns.