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Wacky Canadians Still Believe in Privacy

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By Al Kamen
Friday, April 25, 2008

Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff caused a little ruckus up north a couple weeks ago as he was pushing his plan to share databases of international air travelers' fingerprints with the Canadians, Brits and Aussies.

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In an interview with an excessively squeamish Canadian reporter, Chertoff was told: "Some are raising that the privacy aspects of this thing, you know, sharing of that kind of data, very personal data, among four countries is quite a scary thing."

Nonsense, Chertoff responded. "Well, first of all, a fingerprint is hardly personal data because you leave it on glasses and silverware and articles all over the world. They're like footprints. They're not particularly private," he said, according to Canadian news reports and privacy lawyer Peter Swire, a senior fellow and guest blogger at the Center for American Progress.

Absolutely. But the old-fashioned Canadians seem to think otherwise. They even have someone who monitors privacy issues, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, who promptly wrote the minister of public safety and preparedness to object, noting that Canadian law "defines fingerprints as personal information" and that "fingerprints constitute extremely personal information for which there is clearly a high expectation of privacy." That's why, she wrote with a hint of huffiness, "Canadians rightly expect their government to respect their civil liberties and personal information from abuse."

Oh yeah? Well, our Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that you have to have probable cause before you haul someone off and fingerprint them. Justice Byron R. White wrote the opinion, joined by Warren E. Burger and William H. Rehnquist, no less.

But in wartime, maybe we have different expectations, okay? As Chertoff, who after all was recently a federal appeals judge, knows quite well, no one should expect privacy in a restaurant or anywhere else where a fingerprint might be left.

And we don't. That's why many diners here are beginning to use gloves when they eat at restaurants and some even wear those hospital booties. Others prefer just a discreet swipe of utensils and glassware with a Wet-Nap to ensure against DNA retrieval from saliva. (There is a growing -- and deplorable -- trend to bring personal cutlery, but that really seems excessive and, in finer establishments, downright disrespectful, especially if it's plastic.)

Is it possible the Canadians thought those signs at beachfront eateries -- "No shirt, no shoes, no service" -- were an effort to maintain appropriate attire? Everyone down here knows the restaurants just wanted to prevent the feds from trying to collect toe prints.

Canadians probably still go to barbershops -- where a single hair in the right hands can provide DNA, general health info, recent drug use data and other information. Our cousins probably haven't read about the growing in-home trim movement here.

And there's an easy way to guard against theft of your secret mattress Sleep Number. Just change the setting every morning before you leave.

Is Nothing Sacred?

Speaking of privacy, it appears a recent uproar by top-level Hill aides -- mostly on the House side -- over Web site LegiStorm's posting of their signatures and home addresses has been resolved, LegiStorm founder Jock Friedly told Roll Call. The House paid the costs -- about $3,100 -- to redact the information from his posting of the required public disclosure forms.

House aides had complained that publication of some information could lead to identity theft or stalking and such.


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