Our Homeland Security Secretary thinks our fingerprints are not "personal data."
Michael Chertoff was in Canada discussing the so-called “Server in the Sky” program to share fingerprint databases among the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. Chertoff told Canadian reporters that fingerprints are "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. Chertoff's claim contradicts Homeland Security's own definition of "personally identifiable information." In Privacy Impact Assessments used by the government, the department lists "biometric identifiers (e.g., fingerprints)."
Jennifer Stoddart, a Canadian official involved with privacy issues disagreed: “Fingerprints constitute extremely personal information for which there is clearly a high expectation of privacy.” There are compelling reasons to treat fingerprints as “extremely personal information,” Stoddart said. "The strongest reason is that fingerprints, if not used carefully, will become the biggest source of identity theft. Fingerprints shared in databases all over the world won’t stay secret for long and identity thieves will take advantage."
We are well aware of the Bush administration's reckless disregard for our civil liberties, including rights to privacy. Chertoff's claim about fingerprints not being personal is yet another example of the administration's lack of respect for individual rights.
Government scraps plan for "virtual fence"
Meanwhile, Chertoff's judgment was again called into question (remember Hurricane Katrina?), this time by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Two months after Chertoff announced his approval of a $20 million "virtual fence" on the Arizona-Mexico border, the government is scrapping the project. The GAO told Congress the plan "did not fully meet user needs and the project's design will not be used as the basis for future developments."
The fence would have consisted of nine electronic surveillance towers along a 28-mile section of border southwest of Tucson. The glaring problem was the time lag between electronic detection of movement along the border and transmitting a camera image to agents patrolling the area, the GAO said. The project is to be replaced with towers equipped with communications systems, cameras and radar capability.
Travelers beware: Fourth Amendment again under threat
On Monday, a federal appeals court ruled that border agents can search laptops, cameras and mobile phones without cause. The ruling extends the government's power to look through personal belongings like luggage, briefcases and handbags. Further, the ruling allows agents to seize electronic devices and keep them for an indefinite period of time!
The unanimous three-judge decision reverses a lower court finding that digital devices were "an extension of our own memory" and too personal to allow the government to search them without cause. The previous ruling said US Customs agents would need "reasonable and articulable suspicion" a crime had occurred before searching a traveler's laptop.
On appeal, the government argued that was too high a standard, infringing upon its right "to keep the country safe and enforce laws." Civil rights and business traveler groups defended the lower court ruling, to no avail. In Arnold vs. USA, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the so-called border exception to the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches applied not just to suitcases and papers, but also to electronics.
The court's ruling did not indicate whether a traveler must provide login information to help the government search his computer. The ruling also did not address the issue of encrypted data on the hard drive.
P.S. In the New York Daily News, Mike Lupica has a fascinating column about the Democratic presidential race.