Friday, April 11, 2008

Privacy Commissioner's response to US Homeland Security Secretary's statement on biometrics

Jennifer Stoddart has released a letter addressed to Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day in response to remarks made by the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security suggesting fingerprints are not “personal data”.

Letter to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada

The Honourable Stockwell Day, P.C., M.P. Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada Public Safety Canada Room: 19A-7400 269 Laurier Avenue West Ottawa, ON K1A 0P8

Dear Minister,

I am writing to express my concern about remarks U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff made yesterday while in Ottawa, suggesting fingerprints are not “personal data”.

As you know, Canadian privacy legislation defines fingerprints as personal information. In Canada, we have traditionally taken a more restrained approach to the collection of fingerprints, largely restricted to cases were individuals are charged with or convicted of certain criminal behaviour.

In contrast, the U.S. has increasingly relied upon the collection of biometric data, including fingerprints, from a broad range of individuals for border control purposes and in order to identify and track suspected terrorists. Fingerprints constitute extremely personal information for which there is clearly a high expectation of privacy. Canadian courts have held that, absent lawful authority, compelling persons to provide fingerprints may violate their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

No one doubts the need to strengthen information-sharing among nations. We all share a common goal of ensuring our national security. However, as Privacy Commissioner, I strongly urge the Government of Canada to ensure that the privacy rights of individuals are respected and protected at all times.

Canadians rightly expect their government to respect their civil liberties and safeguard their personal information from abuse. The challenge lies in finding the balance between the protection of civil liberties and the need for national security.

As Privacy Commissioner, I certainly expect to be consulted if the Government of Canada is considering new programs to share biometric information – or any personal information – with foreign governments.

I expect your assurance that adequate oversight and control mechanisms are built into the collection, use and safeguarding of personal information that may be shared with other governments, and I expect the opportunity to review these mechanisms.

I know that our respective staffs have built a solid working relationship in matters of security and privacy, and expect that the concerns identified above will be addressed as programs are expanded or new programs are considered.


Original signed by

Jennifer Stoddart Privacy Commissioner of Canada

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