After the troubled launch of its new online portal, Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault is calling on the automobile insurance board to put the brakes on a facial recognition project.

The digital transformation of the Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec's (SAAQ) website was supposed to simplify certain transactions, including licence renewal, payments for registration and exam reservations.

But even the CAQ minister responsible for cybersecurity and digital technology, Éric Caire, has admitted the roll-out was a "fiasco." The launch of SAAQclic encountered a hiccup after its servers became overloaded, creating a massive backlog and long lineups at service centres for weeks.

For Guilbault, the debacle is enough to put the new project on ice.

"Modernizing public services is desirable, but given the challenges currently facing the @SAAQ I have asked management to suspend all activities related to the implementation of a facial recognition solution until further notice," Guilbault wrote in a tweet on Tuesday.

The project has been on the government's radar for years, and recently was highlighted in last month's provincial budget as a "project of government interest." The 2023-2024 budget document stated the government was interested in "a facial recognition solution for the optimization of the Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec's photo bank."

The move was also reportedly intended to use biometric data to prevent fraud.

Genevieve Guilbault

Minister Guilbault said she sent a letter to the CEO of the SAAQ, Denis Marsolais, to convey her request.

"For the moment I think we have our hands full with SAAQclic and company," she told reporters at the National Assembly on Tuesday.

The project will be on hold, she said, "until the board has regained control of its operations and planning," to the "satisfaction" of the deputy premier of Quebec.

"I would prefer that we get the first situation right before we move on to another," she said.

Premier François Legault has previously stated that he wanted to evaluate the work of the CEO and the board of directors of the SAAQ in the coming weeks.

One cybersecurity expert raised concerns with the facial recognition project. Patrick Mathieu, co-founder of Hackfest, said governments are not prepared to handle sensitive data.

Patrick Mathieu

"What's concerning, obviously, is with recent news of SAAQ not being able to do computer projects correctly. Jumping into something that is super sensitive for privacy, plus maybe sharing this with a third party … brings a lot of risks, for sure," Mathieu said in an interview Tuesday.

"Security by default and privacy by default in government that's not something that is not something that is done right now. We're years from this. We're trying to do this, but we're not there."

With files from CTV News Montreal's Matt Gilmour and Noovo Info