Canada’s top court enforces license photos

Do our driver's licenses need photos?

Do our driver's licenses need photos?

This past week the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an application to rehear an appeal related to mandatory photos on driver’s licenses.  The legal proceedings with the Alberta provincial government had been dragging on for some years before this final decision was rendered.

The legal issue was raised by Hutterite colonies in southern Alberta because they felt it was a violation the second commandment, “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”  Hutterites feel that photographs of any kind violate this religious principle.

The issue is a real one as Hutterites must drive in order to conduct farm business, and they must be able to get to market to sell their produce and wares.

So, clearly, this group of people have a classic dilemma: they can’t drive without a license, and they can’t get a license without violating their strongly held beliefs.

What is interesting in all this is that the photograph on a license is simply a biometric that is easily read by humans without requiring special readers. (The ‘readers’ are our own eyes and brains.)  It is therefore easy for policemen to compare the photo with the subject in front of them.  The strength of this biometric combined with other information written on the license (height, weight, etc.) make it a rather classic identity document.

And with this document, the subject can attain a high level of assurance: Pan-Canadian Level 2 at a minimum, and with appropriate corroboration, Level 3.  Of course, passports offer similar if not greater benefits due to their relatively higher quality.

What is NOT true, however, is that picture ID is the only way for individuals to attain the high levels of identity assurance required for conducting high-value interactions and transactions.  Technically, a photo on a driver’s license is not the only way to prove one’s identity to a suspicious policeman.  A few years ago I worked on a web-based, identity proofing project that did not require picture ID.  The registrant provided a number of strong shared secrets, followed by an approval step carried out by a trusted third party who knew the individual (i.e. could provide corroboration).  The resulting electronic credential was supported by a strong password and an RSA SecurID fob.

While this example is not directly related to the case of presenting identity to a law enforcement officer, we need to be careful about assuming that picture ID is mandatory for these types of identity assurance activities.  I was encouraged to hear that the Minister of Service Alberta, Heather Klimchuk, was willing to work with the Hutterite colonists to find creative solutions to the problem. One idea was to provide these people with a special pouch that hid the image until an officer needed to confirm the identity of the holder.

I would like to think that there are emerging technologies that can be considered as well.  For example, based on tenders and other public records, the Solicitor General in Alberta is looking to implementing iris scanning technology, and it seems probable that police forces could be equipped with iris scanners at some point in the future.  Another option would be encoding the facial image in a 3D bar code or chip on the license, and deploying readers to support these technologies.  Perhaps one of  these options would be acceptable to Hutterites?

There are certainly privacy issues to be considered, and solution costs have to be reasonable, but it is this type of idea generation that will be needed to properly address this issue. While most of us may not be able to relate to the Hutterite’s specific objection, this minority population has every right to their religious beliefs and practices.  Our Canadian values of inclusion and respect for diversity require that we work to support these fundamental rights.