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Panel Summary Report: Privacy and Passenger Biometrics

Image credit: Hanson Lu

By Bailey Cordrey

On February 10, 2021, the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD), in collaboration with InterVISTAS Consulting, hosted a panel discussion on “Privacy and Passenger Biometrics: New Developments and Perspectives.” The focus of the panel was to discuss developments and perspectives regarding new applications of biometric data systems and facial recognition technologies in airport environments. Fundamental policy issues around the protection of personal air traveller data as well as digital profiles and identities were also explored. Our four esteemed panelists included:

  • John P. Wagner, Former Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner (Office of Field Operations), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
  • Ellen McClain, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS); Vice President, InterVISTAS Consulting Inc.
  • Isabelle Lelieur, Partner, Cabinet Chevrier Avocats, Paris
  • Jacqueline Lu, Co-Founder, Helpful Places

The panel was moderated by Paul Clark, Vice President of InterVISTAS Consulting.

Solomon Wong, President and CEO of InterVISTAS Consulting, opened the panel with brief remarks on the importance of balancing the practical benefits offered by biometrics systems against the policy challenges underlying the regulation of emergent technologies. Wong also observed that demand for “touchless travel” resulting from the coronavirus pandemic has been an additional driver toward the application of biometric technologies across modes of transport. He noted that digital identity, globalization and stakeholder engagement would be important themes throughout the panel. Following this introduction, Moderator Paul Clark guided panelists to individually share their insights on the topic at hand before inviting live questions from the audience.

Ellen McClain began by discussing the legal landscape with respect to privacy and the collection and use of biometric data. Generally speaking, she noted, a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy is protection from government intrusion, but there is less consensus about how lawmakers and courts view the balance between technology and privacy in commercial contexts. The three biggest concerns of data subjects appear to be breaches, function creep and data sharing. Currently, the US lacks a comprehensive federal law regulating the collection and use of biometric data, resulting in what commentators have called a ‘patchwork’ of sector- and state-specific laws, which fail to adequately address the interconnected nature of data networks. To aid her summary, McClain switched focus to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requirements, which can apply to any business that processes the personal data of EU residents, regardless of where the company is located or where the processing occurs. Last July, the European Court of Justice invalidated the EU-US Privacy Shield Agreement, ruling that US law failed to protect personally identifiable data from surveillance by government agencies. As a result, entities that transfer data pertaining to EU persons must adopt GDPR-approved mechanisms or cease business in the region. McClain contends that US laws are concerned with imposing requirements and restrictions on commercial entities, while the EU emphasizes protecting data subjects’ rights and empowering them as data owners. She concluded her segment with advice for commercial operators: understand the legal landscape in which you operate and remain in compliance with regional regulations to garner trust from travelers and avoid government scrutiny.

John Wagner contributed his perspective as a former public servant of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Wagner explained how the assemblage of checkpoints and portals embedded within airport settings work in tandem to verify the identity of travelers and reduce dependency on one singular screening modality. A challenge for these multiplicitous systems, however, is striking a balance between security efficiency and protection for civil liberties in such a way that is both jurisdictionally and functionally adaptable. This was identified as a priority in the 9/11 Commission Report, which recommended that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and CBP co-develop a discrete biometrics-based departure control system. Early on, this system relied on stovepiped novel data contributions, though recent iterations have adapted to collate data from other government and industry sources. This practice has created an information ‘ecosystem’ fed by many tributaries, capable of verifying the identity of travelers remotely and in real-time. Travelers, in return, receive the benefit of an intuitive and expedited check-in process. However, the application of these new technologies pose several intersecting privacy challenges for administering agencies and private vendors, such as the collection of informed consent from data subjects. Wanger concluded by reiterating the CPB’s overarching goal to build a hygienic, efficient and scalable identity verification system enabled by biometric data–especially in light of the barriers to international travel posed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Isabelle Lelieur was next to join the dialogue, sharing insights on the EU GDPR based on her specialization in aviation law. Her presentation sought to address the EUs legal foundation for data protection, and to what extent biometric data are subject to special protection. Lelieur began by reviewing the three main uses of biometric technologies in airport settings: border control, passenger journey facilitation and mass surveillance. The GDPR recognizes biometric data as ‘sensitive’ and, therefore, subject to special provisions. Since biometric data is produced by the body, is unique and permanent to each individual, and can be used to identify someone without their consent, these characteristics warrant the prohibition of biometric data processing, unless certain prerequisites are fulfilled according to the GDPR. The data controller must prove that the collection of biometric data is both necessary and proportionate, and that data collection is minimized to only fulfil the requirements of legitimate interest. Next, the data subject shall have given explicit consent to the processing of those personal data for specific purposes, and finally, the individual shall be allowed to opt-out of participating in a biometric system in favour of an alternative without any penalties or constraints. Should all these conditions be met, a data controller must administer a data protection impact assessment prior to processing. Lelieur closed with an analysis of each functional biometric system used in airport environments. While border controls are broadly lawful and passenger journey facilitation is relatively well admitted (providing that GDPR provisions are scrupulously fulfilled), wide surveillance of public space remains controversial. 

Jacqueline Liu’s presentation concentrated on the technological design aspects of connectivity-enabling biometric systems. As Co-Founder of Helpful Places and Data Lead at the Mozilla Foundation, she works to improve digital transparency in the public realm with multi-medium communication strategies. Liu shared two key questions that guide her practice: (1) How do we think about solving the needs of people with embedded technologies in the built environment? (2) How do we empower people to understand the why and how of their data processing?

Digital Trust for Places and Routines (DTPR) is a conceptual framework preoccupied with building mechanisms for notification and accountability within environments that host technological features–biometric systems included. It is founded on the principle that people should be able to quickly understand how these technologies work and the purposes that they serve. Through rounds of design-led prototyping and research, Liu understands that user trust first and foremost demands transparency on the part of data controllers, but requires accountability and meaningful participant agency to be sustainable. DTPR attempts to fulfil these parameters with visual markers that make the covert technological features of built environments legible. These markers are intended to be combined with feedback receptors to facilitate two-way communication between data subjects and data controllers. Liu concluded that conversations about digital systems should not only address regulatory standards, but also consider user experience. Connectivity-enabling biometric systems have the potential to make travel more “delightful” for users. 

Following a round of questions from the audience, the panel discussion closed at 12:00 ET. To review the entire live discussion, watch the recording on our YouTube channel and subscribe for more Canadian foreign policy analysis. 


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor