Putting a finger on the problem

When I worked as an intelligence analyst I always wanted more information.  More and better data always trumps less, as it may assist in more in depth and accurate analysis.

So what should we make of the Canadian government’s decision to expand its collection of fingerprints and digital photos, in part to catch “terrorists…and jihadis returning from battles overseas”? (see story here)

Before going into the pros and cons of this proposed policy change, a first question would be: how much is this going to cost the taxpayer?  Don’t get me wrong: I think that we need to spend more money wisely to support our counterterrorism efforts.  But will the investment result in improved capability?

This is hard to answer (only statistics to be gathered in the years to come will be able to give us an sense of the return on our initial outlays).  But here are a few considerations.

1) collecting fingerprints and photos is most effective when you have something to compare it to.  If the person entering has never been registered – or never been placed on some country’s watch list – then it is unclear how this data will help us find the new terrorists.

2) a lot of the people who have left Canada to join groups such as the Islamic State are Canadian citizens.  Will the programme apply to them as well?  Hardly.  So, having John Maguire’s or Andre Poulin’s data on file would not really have helped (unless we are talking exit controls – which is an entirely different matter).  So, this tool would not presumably apply to returning Canadian “jihadis”.

3) what will the programme mean for Canada’s reputation abroad?  I’m sure that it will not be popular among potential immigrants.  Maybe we shouldn’t care about that since lots of other countries already collect this type of data.  I suppose some would say that foreigners should pay more for the privilege of coming here anyway.  It’ll certainly be a lucrative cash cow for government coffers.

There appear to be some obvious benefits coming out of this change.  Canadian agencies will be able to see whether the person applying for the visa abroad is the same one that gets off the plane.  And if someone is on an Interpol or other watch list, identification will be easier.  By the way, I love the term yo-yo bandits (used to describe people who are deported and yet somehow get back in)!  I will leave aside the debate about whether the government should be in the data collection and retention business in this way.

Canada’s counterterrorism agencies need the right tools to do the amazing work they do.  Whether or not collecting fingerprints and digital photos is one of these tools only time will tell.

After all, it is too early to give it two thumbs up.

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