Why should fingerprints be “private”? Nobody seems to be saying. They just assert it. What is wrong with being able to identify people?

Calling asylum seekers a “vulnerable group,” Canada’s privacy commissioner expressed concern Friday about a new government plan to share fingerprint information with Britain and Australia to combat immigration fraud. The three-country agreement was announced Friday with little fanfare, with Canada and the two countries providing assurances that no one’s privacy would be violated and that no database for the prints would be created.

A lawyers’ group in Australia also raised privacy concerns about the plan, which the United States and New Zealand were expected to join later on.

The offices of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan made the announcement Friday along with their counterparts in London and Canberra, calling it a “landmark initiative” that would “improve our ability to identify foreign nationals who are seeking to enter Canada and who are trying to hide their past from authorities.” The new agreement allows countries to check each other’s fingerprint databases but doesn’t give them unfettered access.

The measure was touted as a way to better detect bogus immigration and refugee claimants. To allay privacy concerns, the countries said that no central database of fingerprints would be created and all inquiries would be done anonymously. If a set of fingerprints did not produce a match, they would be destroyed.

This information sharing is part of a broader government initiative to introduce biometrics into Canada’s immigration and refugee screening system.

The Immigration department, in Friday’s news release, also said that it had done a privacy impact assessment. But the spokeswoman for Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart told Canwest News Service on Friday that it asked Immigration on July 20 to give more details about that assessment.

Though Immigration had “demonstrated its legislative authority” to go ahead with the plan, privacy commissioner spokeswoman Anne-Marie Hayden said, “we nevertheless expressed some concerns, we had some questions, and made a number of recommendations.” This included asking Immigration to explicitly explain its rationale or need for the “high-value data-sharing.”

In an e-mail, Hayden said: “Highly sensitive information such as fingerprints should be safeguarded with a correspondingly high level of security safeguards. Though threat and risk assessments (TRA) were completed, we were not provided with any details on the assessments, to demonstrate that business and IT controls are adequate, and were not informed whether action has been taken to address risks identified in the TRA — so we asked for more information on this front.”

The privacy commissioner also asked for a further explanation of how the government plans to use biometric information in the future and what weight it plans to attach to the data when making an assessment of a particular application, said Hayden. “We very much look forward to receiving further clarity and information from CIC (Citizenship and Immigration Canada) to ensure that this initiative is respectful of the privacy rights of what may be considered quite a vulnerable group,” wrote Hayden. “We understand this is just one of several biometrics initiatives being considered by the CIC and we’ve made CIC aware of our concerns with respect to what seems to be a general trend toward an increased collection of biometric information — so we will definitely be monitoring these issues closely and look forward to being kept informed by the department(s) involved.”

The president of the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper that the new agreement was disquieting. “I’d really like to see the justification for this and see it implemented in a culturally sensitive manner,” the group’s president, Susan Harris-Rimmer, told the newspaper.

Alykhan Velshi, the spokesman for Canada’s immigration minister, said all countries involved had implemented “rigorous privacy protocols” to address such concerns. “But ultimately you can’t allow hypothetical concerns about this to get in the way of tangible concrete benefits for the security and safety of Canadians,” Velshi told Canwest News Service.

In a 2007 trial, Canada shared the fingerprints of 343 refugee claimants with the United States and found matches in 124 cases, or 36 per cent. Of those, five per cent had a criminal history in the U.S. while 32 per cent had been ordered removed from the U.S., said Velshi. In a similar 2008 trial with Britain, Canada checked 2,000 refugee claimants’ fingerprints and got 72 matches, or four per cent, he said.

Velshi also gave the anecdotal example of a Somali who claimed asylum in Britain. He had been fingerprinted in the U.S. while travelling on Australian identification. His fingerprints established that he was wanted for rape in Australia, where he was subsequently convicted and is in prison. “It’s a personal priority of Minister Kenney to focus on the security elements in immigration programs.”

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