Ontario is investing big money and plenty of energy into research on finger scans, hand geometry, face reading and other biometrics for its coming smart card program.
About $300,000 worth of biometric consulting work by a New York company has been under way since the fall and will continue for at least several months.
Big North American firms are showing their versions of the controversial identity technology to officials of the Smart Card Project at Queen's Park.
This week will see Ontario staffers go to Ottawa to brief Treasury Board and other officials about the program, including the sensitive area of biometrics.
And even though the Ontario cabinet minister in charge of the cards plays down the prospect of the Big-Brother-style ID, even his own staff members acknowledge it may ultimately arrive.
"The minister feels the likelihood of moving forward with biometrics at this point is low", a spokesman for Management Chair Chris Hodgson said.
"Nevertheless, that does not mean there will never be a case for the use of biometrics", said Alexandra Gillespie, Hodgson's press secretary.
"It is important we do a complete feasibility study because it's possible biometrics could be used at some point in the future.
"If it's not appropriate now, what are the circumstances perhaps where it might be?"
Currently, there are concerns about the privacy of biometrics and the business case is weak because it costs too much.
The high-tech systems -- which confirm identity by scanning eyes, fingers, hands, or faces -- are also too new.
It could end up being too expensive and risky to launch smart cards with a "unique identifier" like a scan.
But smart cards are not expected to be in the hands of all Ontarians for up to five years. And the cost and security of new technology improves as a technology matures. That leaves the government time to find a suitably priced and adequately protected biometric system that could be added later.
Under legislation due this spring, the program will begin by replacing Ontario health cards with new ones carrying basic personal information on a readable silicon chip.
Each of Ontario's 3.5 million photo health cards would be replaced gradually, as the program gains steam.
Eventually, all Ontarians would carry a multipurpose card containing medical and driving records. The addition of other data would be an option available to the cardholder.
A decision on biometrics will not be made for months.
"We have to complete the research and put information before the government to make a final decision", says Barry Goodwin, director of policy for the smart card program.
"Biometrics is a pretty new field, and there are different products and types of biometrics emerging and hitting the market, usually on a small scale."
A feasibility study by International Biometrics Group, a New York research and consulting firm, will "provide advice on which of any currently available biometrics technology might meet the project's business needs".
The cards must reduce fraud, increase customer service, and protect personal privacy, smart card project officials say.
While many smaller programs in the U.S., Europe, and Far East use face, finger, or palm scans to authenticate card holder identity, "there's never been a project on this scale", Goodwin said.
"We don't even know it's possible."
But there clearly is a will to explore whether biometrics could work.
The technology has been under consideration since Premier Mike Harris first promised smart cards in 1995.
Harris believes the cards -- first intended for welfare recipients -- would root out fraud, improve public access, and make government more efficient.
But that argument enrages privacy advocates, who say the card program is a step toward creating electronic identities for citizens.
An individual's every move could conceivably be tracked or retraced.
"One of the concepts that cuts through to the public is this idea of a universal identification card", said David Jones, a computer professor at McMaster University.
No one wants to live in a country where police or government officials might be able to [stop you on the street and] ask for your identity card, said Jones, president of the privacy rights group Electronic Frontier Canada.
"This card would be you. It would have everything about you."
Ann Couvakian, Ontario's privacy commissioner, said biometrics have been part of smart card proposals from the beginning and her team has worked as hard as possible to derail the idea.
Failing that, she has tried to put the government on notice that exceptionally high standards would have to be met if biometrics are used.
"Believe me, I'm hoping it's not alive", the privacy watchdog said.
However, potential suppliers of biometrics are still being heard, project officials say.
AcSys Biometrics, a Canadian firm, and Maximus, one of the largest government smart card providers in the U.S., are among firms that have shown their wares since the new year began.
The companies jointly demonstrated a new face recognition system, said Darlene Marks of HCI Inc., the Burlington-based parent of AcSys Biometrics.
Marks said the use of a face scan when presenting a smart card ensures that only the authorized person can use it. Also, multiple identities for one individual are not possible.
"I think this is truly protecting one's privacy", Marks said.
Maximus, a mammoth company that has issued at least 800,000 smart cards on behalf of governments in the U.S. alone, is among dozens of international companies lined up as potential Ontario bidders.
"The money at stake here is unbelievable, unimaginable", said a former Ontario bureaucrat who asked not to be named.
In the U.S., the federal General Services Administration is spending billions of dollars on a smart card technology program just for employees. That program is expected to include biometrics.