MONTREAL -- The Quebec government is planning to create a central computer file on all its citizens, an identification database that would include names, photographs, and basic identifying information for every Quebecer.
The new central database -- already being planned by a group of government bureaucrats, aided by a computer-systems contractor -- will replace the myriad lists of names and addresses kept by a variety of provincial government departments and agencies, according to Robert Perreault, Quebec's Citizens Relations Minister.
The system would also be used to issue a generic identification card, although the cards would be issued on a voluntary basis -- a concession to public opinion after widespread criticism killed proposals for a mandatory, multi-purpose government ID card.
Assurances that the card will be voluntary and that private information will be protected do not assuage the fears of some privacy experts and consumer-protection advocates, however. They said yesterday they see the central register as a state intrusion where no crying need has been proven.
They also see a potential danger to the confidentiality of private information. Mr. Perreault said the reason for the central register is to cut the red tape Quebecers face each time they move and are forced to advise several agencies of their new address. He said it will also help the government reduce fraud by those who create false identities to obtain government services.
Marie Vallee, a privacy expert with Quebec consumer group Action Reseau Consommateur, said it is another example of the government "trying to kill a fly with a bazooka." There is no demonstrated need to register millions of Quebecers to combat a few cases of fraud, she said.
"Will it be used for other purposes?" she asked. "And who will have access to this mega-file?"
After a National Assembly committee held a series of hearings into the idea of a generic identity card in 1997, the proposal appeared to lose steam. The committee recommended that any such card be issued on a voluntary basis, but the prospect of a central register of Quebecers had not been widely debated.
But in early March, without announcement, the Quebec cabinet gave Mr. Perreault a mandate to come up with a design for a "unified identity management model." Two days later, Quebec's director of civil status, an agency under Mr. Perreault's purview, issued a tender for a $100,000 contract for the design of the system.
The central register itself will contain each individual's name, address, birth date, the names of their parents, and a photograph -- the same one used on Quebecers' driver's licences and medicare cards. It will also be used as the source for the identity cards, which would be issued to those who request one and pay a fee.
The cards will likely be one of the forms of identification that Quebecers will be allowed to use -- along with driver's licences and medicare cards -- to identify themselves at voting polls, as required by a bill currently winding its way through the National Assembly.
Mr. Perreault said the central-register working group was also mandated to consider including a microprocessor on the card, so that it can eventually be used for dealings with the government via the Internet or other electronic means. That idea is "more an exploration", he said.
He said the central register will provide a single entry point for Quebecers changing their address, and it will also give the director of civil status a mandate to make sure the information is correct. The various existing systems include errors and cases of fraudulent identities, he said.
"I'm not saying it's a generalized phenomenon, but on the margins there are cases of fraud."
He dismissed suggestions that the new register would represent a new state intrusion into citizens' private lives, arguing Quebecers are already required to declare their identity and address to obtain a driver's licence, medicare card, and other services. The information is already there, but updated piecemeal, Mr. Perreault said.
"If the question is, do we fall into Big Brother as soon as we have electronic means to work with, I would say that in a certain sense we are already there", he said. "A totalitarian government could always [misuse] it, but in a democratic society like ours, those rules are established."
Ms. Vallee, however, wondered who in the government will have access to the central register, and suggested its original uses might eventually be expanded.
She noted the current government moved in recent years to allow government departments to systematically obtain information from other departments that can be used in ways that were not originally intended.
And she raised concerns that such a government-wide system could make it easier for people to illegally obtain confidential information.
During the 1997 National Assembly hearings, an official with Quebec's access-to-information commission testified that a black-market trade in private information obtained from government sources already existed. Creating a single identifying number would make it easier for people to illegally obtain a wide bank of information, the official warned.
"That's false", Mr. Perreault said yesterday. "That can be controlled, with computer systems."
Ms. Vallee said she fears proposals to use the card for electronic dealings with the government could lead to a slippery slope that will make the card effectively mandatory, because Quebecers without it would one day be unable to obtain some government services unless they brave prohibitively long waits.
"When bank machine cards came out, they were just a gadget. Now, if you don't want to have one, you're cooked."