Passport Canada Consultations on Passport Services

Focus Group Report

Prepared for Passport Canada
October 2009

Executive Summary

Passport Canada commissioned Phoenix SPI to conduct research regarding a new 10- year electronic passport that the Government of Canada intends to launch in 2011. The objective was to explore issues related to the proposed passport and extended validity period in advance of its launch. Results of this research will enable Passport Canada to better understand Canadians’ perceptions of the new validity period and enhanced product, make informed decisions when recommending the best and most effective approach to implement the 10-year e-Passport, and provide direction for the development of the communication strategy to announce the new passport and any changes to service.

This report presents the results from a set of 12 focus groups conducted October 5-8 2009. Two groups were held in each of the following locations: Halifax, Sherbrooke (French), Montreal (French), Windsor, Red Deer, and Vancouver. Participants included representatives of four target audiences: passport holders, non-passport holders eligible to obtain a passport and intending to do so, business travelers, and seniors.

This research was qualitative in nature, not quantitative. As such, the results provide an indication of participants’ views about the issues explored, but cannot be generalized to any of the audiences included in this research.

These focus groups were part of a research program that includes a telephone survey of Canadians and a set of in-depth interviews with industry representatives. Results from the other elements of the research will be available under separate cover.

Perceptions of Passports (in General) and the Canadian Passport

When participants think about the most important features or characteristics of a passport, they focused most often on its ability to allow/facilitate travel and its use for identification. As a form of identification, it was routinely seen as having a number of key characteristics: identifying one’s citizenship, being authoritative proof of identity, being secure, and being multi-purpose. A number of participants also observed that a passport is a document that confers certain rights or privileges on its bearer (e.g. the right to enter or be in a foreign country, the right to protection/assistance from one’s own government when abroad). Many also felt that a passport is a document that makes its bearer feel safe and secure in a foreign country.

When the focus turned to the Canadian passport, participants were readily able to identify characteristics or elements that they judged to be important, nearly all of which were positive or reflected positively on our passport. The characteristic identified most often was its perceived high regard in many countries. Because the Canadian passport is highly regarded and results in friendly, positive treatment of Canadians, it was also routinely identified as a source of pride for Canadians. Probing revealed that the high regard in which the Canadian passport is thought to be held was attributed primarily to the high regard in which Canada itself and Canadians are held (i.e. our international reputation). Concerns related to the Canadian passport were relatively limited. That said, numerous participants felt that the current 5-year validity period is too short, and that it should be extended to 10 years. This concern was the one specific issue voiced most often.

Perceptions of New Passport in General

Almost no one claimed to be aware of the Government of Canada’s intention to introduce a new passport by 2011. When asked to identify what came to mind when they heard the terms ‘electronic passport’ or ‘ePassport’, participants pointed to a variety of images.

However, two predominated: the image of a plasticized card, like a credit card, and the assumption that an ePassport would include an electronic chip containing information about the bearer. Many participants also said the expressions brought to mind images of quicker/more convenient passage at border crossings, use of computer-aided technology for identity verification, and additional security features.

Initial reaction to the proposed passport, based on a short description participants were asked to read, was mostly favourable or supportive. Most participants reacted positively, including majorities in more than half of the focus groups, with most of the rest being neutral (only a handful described their initial reaction as negative). That said, participants raised a number of questions and/or concerns about specific aspects or elements of the proposed passport. In addition, positive reaction was more likely to be in response to the extension of the validity period to 10 years than in response to the introduction of an electronic passport, although reaction to the latter also tended to be favourable.

Focus on ePassport

Overall reaction to the idea of an electronic passport tended to be positive, and most participants who did not react positively were neutral rather than negative (needing more information about it before deciding). That said, participants collectively raised a number of questions or concerns about the electronic passport, and the same questions and concerns found expression in all or most of the focus groups.

One of the most frequently-expressed concerns related to the safety and security of the information embedded in the chip. There was relatively widespread concern about possible access to this information for criminal purposes, including (but not only) identity theft, and questions related to the nature and volume of information that would or could be placed on the electronic chip. Related concerns focused on the amount of information that might be included on the chip in future, and who would have access to the information on the chip and what might be done with it. Participants also frequently asked about the cost implications of adding an electronic chip to the passport, potential problems that might arise if the chip were damaged, and questions of a practical nature, typically with a focus on use-related issues and situations/scenarios that might arise. Finally, a number of participants raised issues related to the transition period (e.g. will current passports valid beyond 2011 remain valid or will everyone need to get an electronic passport as soon as they are available?).

When it came to perceived benefits of an electronic passport, two were identified most often. Many participants pointed to the increased security measures in the electronic passport as its main benefit. This was seen to result in reduced likelihood of fraud in general, and identity theft in particular, by making the passport more difficult to duplicate or tamper with. There was also a relatively widespread assumption that the introduction of the electronic passport would help expedite and speed up passage through customs.

The rationale for introducing the electronic passport, namely to enhance identity protection and verification, resonated with the large majority of participants. Nearly all found this justification credible and believable, and supported it. Many added, however, that they agree with this rationale as long as it is true (i.e. as long as these measures do in fact enhance identity protection and verification).

Most participants viewed as acceptable the idea of including finger scans as a measure to enhance identity authentication. The reason offered most often was that it would provide an additional measure to enhance identity verification and combat identity theft. Reaction to the idea of including iris scans was more mixed. Approximately one-third of participants found this acceptable, and for the same reasons they found finger scans acceptable. The rest were divided between those who did not like the idea or found it unacceptable, and those who were unsure. It was apparent that many participants were not comfortable with the inclusion of iris scans in the electronic passport because they lack familiarity with it. This is not something that many people have experience with or knowledge about.

Extended Validity Period

Overall reaction to the idea of extending the validity period of the passport to 10 years was very positive, with nearly all participants reacting positively to this proposal. Nevertheless, participants did have questions or concerns about this, nearly all of which were variations on a single theme; specifically, changes that can occur over a 10-year period and their implications.

The main concern in this regard was the possibility that the picture might become dated and no longer bear a resemblance to the bearer. A number of participants also drew attention to the fact that much can change in a person’s life over a 10-year period (e.g. a name change because of marriage or divorce). As well, many felt that a 10-year period was a long time to go without a security check or verification of personal information. The question of whether the electronic chip embedded in the passport might degenerate over a 10-year period was also routinely raised. The only frequently-identified concern not related to issues of security and identity validation concerned cost. Some wondered if the cost of a passport would be affected by the extended validity period and to what extent.

There was near-unanimity regarding the main benefits/advantages of a 10-year passport: the extended validity period, which meant that one would need to apply less often for a passport. Other perceived advantages or benefits were identified infrequently, including bringing the Canadian passport into line with others that have a 10-year validity period, savings if one only has to apply for a passport every 10 years, faster service as a result of fewer line-ups when applying for a passport, reducing the number of passports having to be recycled, and reducing the amount of paper used to produce them.

Positive reaction to the idea of a 10-year passport was underscored by the fact that, given the choice between a 10-year or 5-year passport, nearly all participants chose the 10-year option. In explaining why, they re-iterated what they saw as the main benefit of such a passport – increased convenience. That said, participants were almost evenly split over the issue of whether Canadians should have the option of applying for either a 5- or 10- year passport or whether the validity period should be the same for all passports. Those who supported having a choice, most often referred to choice itself to explain why (i.e. people should have the choice of applying for one or the other). Those who thought there should be no choice most often explained that uniformity/standardization would result in fewer logistical problems and/or mistakes. There was unanimous agreement that children’s passports should remain valid for only five years.

Communications Issues

Most participants reacted in a generally positive way to a fact sheet providing more information about the new passport, including reasons for introducing it. It was routinely described as providing valuable contextual information related to the electronic passport, as well as some strong arguments for introducing it. Many also described the information as reassuring and/or providing answers to questions they had about the ePassport.

Positive overall reaction was underscored by the fact that when probed as to whether their views about the electronic passport changed as a result of the information provided in the fact sheet, most participants said their impression became more positive. Reasons given to explain this tended to focus on two aspects of the fact sheet: the emphasis on ensuring the security and safety of Canadians, and the fact that Canada is not alone in this but is doing what other countries are doing or have already done. Numerous statements in the fact sheet, on these and other issues, elicited positive feedback among participants.

Many participants said they did not react negatively or critically to any elements in the fact sheet. Moreover, those who did were most likely to focus on the information that Passport Canada operates on a cost-recovery basis. Opinion was divided on this, with some reacting positively, some reacting critically, and some reacting with surprise, but neither positively nor negatively. Beyond this, the only statement to elicit critical reaction with any frequency was the one referring to the ePassport being a powerful tool to prevent and combat terrorism and transnational crime, which was seen by many to be an overstatement. While many participants identified additional information they would like about the new passport, they tended to re-iterate the questions they had asked earlier.

The feedback reported above is based on participants’ oral comments, as well as a review of their fact sheets, which were collected at the end of the session. When reading the fact sheet on the new passport, participants were asked to put a plus sign beside anything to which they reacted positively and a negative sign beside anything to which they reacted negatively, for whatever reason, or potentially caused concern.

Cost-Related Issues

By a relatively wide margin, most participants think it is reasonable to subsidize the cost of children’s passports by charging more for adult passports. The most frequently-given reason to explain why concerned the financial burden on parents if they had to pay full price. The reason identified most often to explain the viewpoint that this is not reasonable was based on the idea that the cost of a passport should be the same for all passport holders and that no one should be obliged to pay for someone else’s.

While there was relatively widespread support for subsidizing children’s passports, there was limited support for subsidizing other segments of the population. On an unprompted basis, small numbers suggested subsidization for seniors, low-income Canadians, and students, based on the perception that these groups have lower incomes and so would benefit from financial assistance.

Pricing models for setting the price of passports did not engage participants and most had no real opinion or preference regarding the options offered to them. Specifically, participants were informed that there are different pricing models that Passport Canada could adopt to govern passport price increases. The following three approaches were presented to participants for their reaction:

  • The current system, where price increases are fairly infrequent and therefore are fairly large when they do take place.
  • Putting in place a regular schedule of price increases, where the schedule is set every five years or so. The schedule would identify a series of smaller price increases that would take place on a regular basis (e.g. every year or two years).
  • Having periodic price increases, say every two years, based on the inflation rate.

Some felt that this was an internal issue about which Passport Canada should decide. Others observed that a passport is something they apply for relatively infrequently and they will pay what it costs when the need arises. Those who did prefer an option tended to prefer the idea of periodic price increases as opposed to infrequent and large increases.

Service Issues

Most participants thought that under normal (non-rush) circumstances, it should take approximately two weeks for someone to receive a passport after they have submitted an application. Nearly all the remaining participants felt that a longer waiting period, ranging from three weeks to one month, was reasonable. When it came to special situations (i.e. urgent requests), nearly all participants felt that it should take no more than 48 hours for someone to receive a passport after they have submitted an application.

Nearly all participants thought that in special situations where Passport Canada must produce a passport on an urgent basis, it is reasonable to add a surcharge to the cost of the passport. However, the issue of the difference between urgent requests due to illness or death vs. urgent request for other reasons came up repeatedly. There was a general sense among many participants that some form of ‘compassionate grounds’ was reasonable and should be applied to waive or diminish the amount of a surcharge, where applicable. While there was near-unanimity that a surcharge is reasonable for urgent requests, there was no consensus as to what a reasonable surcharge would be.

Views were mixed on the issue of whether it is reasonable for Passport Canada to add an additional charge to the cost of replacing a lost or stolen passport. A majority felt that this was not reasonable, based mainly on the assumption that replacing a lost or stolen passport was no different from issuing a new one, and therefore should not cost more.

When it comes to applying for a passport, most participants prefer to maintain the current system in which a passport is mailed by Xpress Post and the cost of that service is included in the price of the passport. In explaining why, they all gave the same reason, which was the impression that Xpress Post is a more secure delivery system for a document as important as a passport. Some, on the other hand, preferred being able to pay for the postal service of their choice (i.e. Xpress Post or regular mail), feeling that people should have the option to choose. In discussing their preferences, a number of participants volunteered that they would like to be given a third option: picking up their passport in person and receiving a corresponding reduction in the price of their passport.

Conclusions and Implications

Overall reaction to the new 10-year ePassport that the government intends to launch in 2011 tends to be positive. While initial reaction to the extension of the validity period was particularly positive, reaction to the ePassport aspect tended to become more positive once reasons for introducing it were presented. Indeed, the main rationale for introducing the electronic passport, namely to enhance identity protection and verification, resonated with most participants, including a majority in every group.

While participants raised a number of issues regarding the new passport, these usually took the form of questions that were specific and concrete. In other words, concerns tended to express themselves as a desire for more information. Moreover, the main concerns expressed by participants, i.e. the safety/security of the information on the chip, and the nature/volume of the information, is essentially a desire for confirmation that what the government is advancing will actually be the case. In other words, participants want to

be reassured that the measures proposed will in fact be effective in preventing fraud, and that the privacy of personal information is preserved, in part, by ensuring that the information on the chip is limited to the information on page two of the current passport.

Regarding the new passport’s ability to prevent fraud and identity theft, it is important to note that concerns about the extended validity period tend to work against the perceived strengths of the electronic passport. The main perceived benefits of the electronic passport were its contributions to increased security and identity validation. However, the main concerns regarding the 10-year validity period have to do with how the extension of the validity period could adversely affect both.

In terms of communications messaging, the following two themes resonated positively with participants as reasons for introducing the new passport: safety and security, and the importance of keeping pace with others, including meeting international standards. In addition, participants reacted positively to clear, concrete, specific information or explanations. Conversely, participants did not react well to, and sometimes reacted negatively to, statements perceived to be slogan-like, overstated, or negative in terms of messaging.

Other than the issues of the safety/security of the information included on the chip, and the nature/volume of that information, the other main recurring theme concerned the cost of the passport. While many expressed concern about this, there was also a widespread assumption that the cost of the new passport would increase. In other words, there was recognition that these changes would result in a more expensive passport. And while participants may not have liked the idea of paying more for a passport, neither did they strongly object to this or view it as unfair. But while the cost of a new passport is clearly an issue that interested participants, the ways in which price increases are to be managed did not engage them.

Finally, it is worth noting that service-related expectations regarding the amount of time it should take to obtain a passport are in line with current service standards.