Biometric technology is becoming more prevalent, but what exactly is it?

Well, the convenient way you unlock your cell phone with only your thumbprint? That’s biometric technology – it provides a quick and easy way to make certain you’re you.

To live day-to-day in Canada, a person needs to prove who they are to receive the best service and care as possible. Without ID, a person can’t vote, access social services or join most banking institutions. Even book loans can be restricted.

On the one hand, just like banks and government organizations, emergency shelters require ID because they’re responsible for the well-being and safety of all shelter users. From building evacuations to relationship management, it’s vital that agencies know who’s in their care. To be clear, the Calgary Drop-In Centre (the DI) does not turn away service to anyone based on a lack of ID. But it does make things more challenging for us.

Yet, on the other hand, the lack of ID causes enormous grief for those who don’t have it. Government issued ID can be expensive and agencies require additional forms of proof. For example, to obtain a SIN card, you first need an original copy of your birth certificate or certification of citizenship or registration. If you’ve lost all your ID and you have limited income, how would you even get started?

It must feel defeating.

Technology experts have been working on solutions to this global identification problem in human services, including facial biometric technology. Facial biometrics is a non-invasive, contactless and globally accepted identification tool that helps identify individuals who may not have access to required identification.

After significant testing for accuracy and efficacy, the DI is expected to be the first emergency shelter in Calgary – maybe even in Canada – to introduce facial biometric technology. By implementing this technology, the DI hopes to better accommodate both the requirements of the agency and the needs of our community’s most vulnerable people.

The DI sees three key benefits from this technology:

  1. Collect accurate data to better understand who we’re serving daily to better inform our programs and system planning
  2. An aim to use a trauma-informed process to check-in people who require shelter and/or our client services (e.g. laundry, mail services, case management)
  3. Free up staff’s time, and provide them with more accurate information, so they can focus on helping clients find housing

Technology is rapidly evolving, so we know there are questions about this kind of biometric technology. (We had them too.)

Photo credit: Sierra Systems


Q: How will facial biometric technology make the DI better?

Currently, the DI uses outdated fingerprint biometric technology, which was originally implemented as a potential solution to clients’ lack of government-issued identification. Yet, the biometric system does not work on cold, burned or otherwise damaged fingers; it’s time consuming; and it can easily trigger negative memories of previously being fingerprinted (e.g. prior incarceration) or symptoms of paranoia.

Facial biometric technology is accurate, immediate and non-invasive. This means individuals who need to access DI services are checked-in more quickly, DI staff know who’s in the building, and the process has less potential to be a triggering experience.

Q: Why does a more efficient intake process matter?

During the winter in Calgary, the number of people accessing the DI increases exponentially because of the frigid temperatures. Likewise, in the summer, Calgary is subject to heat waves and dangerous hail storms. Facial biometric technology can decrease the que and the amount of time people wait outside in dangerous conditions, which offers a promising solution to a growing concern.

Q: We’re talking about the most vulnerable people in our society. Why do agencies need to know so much information about them?

It comes down to service and security.

With more comprehensive and more accurate data, the agency will have a much better understanding of who is accessing DI services. At this time, the DI does not have the resources required to track who is accessing client services like the laundry room, housing support, etc. Having a better idea who our clients are gives us a far better opportunity to assess and strengthen agency programing.

From a security point of view, the DI is responsible for protecting all shelter users, staff and other stakeholders who enter the building. Rarely are people turned away, however, if a client exhibits threatening or violent behaviour, we’re obligated to restrict their entry into the building to protect our clients, stakeholders and staff. If we can’t accurately identify each person with government-ID, it’s possible for a client to use a fake name – or many – and re-enter the building. That said, we’re a compassion-forward agency. Even individuals with restricted access to the building are provided bagged lunches and access to items such as blankets.

Q: What are the privacy and ethical implications of this software?

Once proven and implemented, all information collected about our clients will be treated with the same high-degree of security as our current personal record system. The DI adheres to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP).

While we continue to test this technology, we are also researching best practices about consent and informed consent.

We’re continuing to test the technology, research best practices and develop a comprehensive protocol. That said, the Calgary Drop-In Centre’s highest priority is to care for our community’s most vulnerable and get them connected to housing. We trust that facial biometric technology can help us do that more efficiently.

Q: How will this technology help end chronic homelessness?

Facial biometric technology will significantly increase the efficiency to which people can access the emergency shelter. Yet, front-line staff who are trauma-informed, inherently compassionate and knowledgeable in housing/human services options will continue to lead conversations with clients about how to secure sustainable housing. As the agency progresses and becomes more technologically advanced, the DI is becoming well-positioned to be the most effective housing-focused shelter in North America.

Technology is only one part of this solution, but our updated policies and the DI’s front-line staff are crucial contributors.

Q: Who else is using facial recognition technology?

Both locally and internationally, facial recognition technology is making headway in the human services sector. Here are two examples:

  • In Edmonton, Four Directions Financial is an ATB agency that has implemented biometric technology to provide more accessible service to individuals who are homeless or living in poverty. Often for the first time, Four Directions Financial is helping people set up bank accounts and participate in all ATB programs and services.
  • Globally, the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency has started to use biometric verification of refugees, which has successfully registered 4.4 million refugees in 48 countries.

According to the UNHCR website, “The verification exercise will ensure that refugees and asylum-seekers are accurately reflected in the registration system and assist the Government of Uganda to enhance the accuracy of data. This will make certain that resources and services provided by UNHCR and its partners reach the intended recipients.”

About the Calgary Drop-In Centre

In our community on any given night, nearly 3,000 people need shelter; the reasons why are just as numerous. For more than 55 years, Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre (the DI) has delivered emergency shelter, health services, community resources and housing supports, to people either experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Continuing to lead within community and working in collaboration with local agencies, the DI is positioned to be the most effective shelter in North America. The DI is focused on helping people return to housing while continuing to provide necessary service.

Whether housed or unhoused, the DI is open to care for our community’s most vulnerable and get them connected to housing. Rooted in community and fueled by kindness, the DI proudly serves as part of the Calgary Homeless Foundation’s Homeless-Serving System of Care. For more information on how to volunteer, donate or otherwise make an impact, visit