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George Radwanksi

Privacy under 'unprecedented assault'

In late June, 2003, Radwanski resigned after being attacked by the media and politicians for extravagent use of his expense account. This included things like $400 lunches for two and the taking of his female assistant on international junkets where they stayed at very expensive hotels. He claimed he was persecuted by enemies who didn't like the way he was doing his job. Jezz, George -- I thought you were doing a pretty good job - - couldn't you have eaten fish and chips and stayed at the Holiday Inn?

George Radwanksi

OTTAWA - Imagine a Canada in which every citizen is finger-printed and retina-scanned.

Imagine massive government databases that use these biometric identifiers to catalogue people's travel habits at home and abroad, their Internet usage, their e-mail and cell phone conversations and even videotapes them as they converse on a street corner.

Such a scenario was tabled Wednesday in the House of Commons by the federal ombudsman appointed to safeguard Canadian privacy. And George Radwanksi says this Orwellian society could be the natural evolution of the Liberal government's "unprecedented assault" on privacy rights.

"A year and half ago, if anyone had described the measures now being introduced, no one would have thought it would happen," the federal Privacy Commissioner told a news conference after he submitted his report.

"It's easy in a country like Canada to say bad things don't happen, nobody would intrude on our rights ... [but] all we have to do is look back at history."

Whether it be the internment of Japanese Canadians in the 1940s or the RCMP opening mail and torching barns in Quebec in the 1970s, "we're not immune from excesses by the state," said Mr. Radwanski.

Today, the terrorist attacks of September 2001 appear to have given Ottawa carte blanche to trample privacy rights that Canadians long have taken for granted, he argues.

He listed five specific complaints Wednesday:

• A personal travel database on all citizens by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency that will be shared with any other government department that asks.

• Proposed state powers to monitor electronic communications.

• A proposed national identification card with biometric identifiers.

• Checking all air travellers for outstanding warrants under section 4.82 of the new anti-terror legislation, Bill C-17.

• Federal support for video surveillance on public streets by the RCMP.

Mr. Radwanski said each of these measures individually is deeply disturbing.

"Together, they add up to an unprecedented assault on the fundamental human right of privacy by the government of Canada," he said.

And they're all being undertaken in "blatant, open and repeated disregard" of Mr. Radwanski's warnings to the contrary.

Indeed, the government didn't appear to take Mr. Radwanski's latest admonitions any more seriously than his many previous warnings.

"We all know the Commissioner," said Immigration Minister Denis Coderre, who is floating the plan for national identity cards.

"He's got the right to say what he says, he's got the right to think what he thinks. I believe we need the debate."

Transport Minister David Collenette was similarly dismissive.

"He has a view, which is natural - he's the Privacy Commissioner," said Mr. Collenette, who is responsible for collecting air traveller information.

"We happen to believe that the current bill strikes a balance...."

Even John Reynolds, the Canadian Alliance House leader, said Mr. Radwanski was barking up the wrong tree.

"The information is necessary. We are at war [on terrorism] and we have to protect ourselves."

Mr. Reynolds also suggested that law-abiding citizens with nothing to hide shouldn't be overly concerned, a commonly voiced opinion.

Such arguments clearly frustrate Mr. Radwanski.

He is careful to note that his complaints about antiterror measures relate primarily to function creep, when information collected to stop terrorists is subsequently used for a host of other purposes.

The greatest threats to privacy, he wrote in his report, "either have nothing at all to do with anti-terrorism, or they present no credible promise of effectively enhancing security."

He's equally adamant that the why-should-I-worry? mentality of law-abiding citizens is an argument "at the intellectual level of a bumper sticker."

The same reasoning suggests police should be free to wander through everyone's homes, read their mail or listen in on their phone calls at any time.

"We all have something to hide in terms of our interests, our relationships, our attitudes, choices we've made, mistakes we've made, financial circumstances, our personal habits," said Mr. Radwanski.

"Not because they're illegal. Not because they're shameful. [But] simply because they are private."

Canadian and Dutch Officials Warn of Security's Side Effects

ASHINGTON, Feb. 27, 2003 - Privacy officials from Canada and the Netherlands complained today that the American campaign to crack down on terrorism was needlessly infringing on the privacy of their citizens.

Peter J. Hustinx, president of the Data Protection Authority of the Netherlands, said the United States Customs Service had insisted on access to a wide variety of passenger information, not merely names and passport numbers, but credit card information, telephone contacts and even meal preferences, for flights to the United States, even though release of that information violated laws in Europe.

Airlines were required to provide the information under legislation enacted after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Mr. Hustinx said the European Union had recently agreed to American demands for the information, starting March 5. He said the Union had assured airlines they would not be prosecuted, but had directed them to inform their passengers that the information was being provided to the American government. The European Union has said it was satisfied with safeguards Washington promised for the information.

George Radwanski, privacy commissioner of Canada, said his government was proposing a biometric national identity card, explaining that the United States would require it for crossing the border. He too complained about the breadth of the demand for passenger information - "basically everything the airline knows about you."

Mr. Hustinx and Mr. Radwanski spoke today at a meeting on the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Mr. Hustinx said that Europe had given in to avoid fines and denials of landing rights for its airlines. The United States imposed the requirements unilaterally, he said.

Mr. Radwanski spoke of American pressures in an interview and in his annual report filed last month. At the meeting today he spoke more generally, saying today's terrorists sought to attack the nature of American and Western society. "Our freedoms and values, very much including privacy, are precisely the target. Far from making us safer, every ill-conceived reduction of those freedoms - every needless encroachment on privacy - would be a victory for terrorism."

He warned that antiterrorist efforts should be carefully directed and limited in scope. He said "we must guard against the tendency of governments to create new data bases of privacy-invasive information on justified, exceptional grounds of enhancing security, and then seek to use that information for a whole range of other law enforcement or governmental purposes, simply because it's there and available."

The United States Customs Service issued a statement today saying it uses the data "strictly for border security purposes, including use in threat analysis to identify and interdict potential terrorists and other threats to national and public security."

The Customs statement said the data enabled agents "to focus their resources on the highest risk passengers, thereby facilitating and safeguarding bona fide travelers."

The spokeswoman declined to comment specifically on the complaints by Mr. Hustinx and Mr. Radwanski about the breadth of information it sought. She would not say when it wanted data that included credit card or meal preference information. The statement said the "requested information in the Passenger Name Record includes but is not limited to the P.N.R. locator code, reservation date, ticket information, form of payment itinerary information and P.N.R. history."

Mr. Radwanski said there were more than 30 items in the record, including not only the items cited by Customs but also all contact phone numbers, dietary preferences, health needs such as wheelchairs, frequent-flier information and how much luggage a traveler had.

Mr. Radwanski's complaint about the biometric national identity card - which the Congress has forbidden this United States government from developing for American citizens - was summarized in his annual report to Canada's Parliament last month.

He said that "government officials have repeatedly told me privately that pressure from the United States government is a strong motivating factor" behind the identity card proposal. He said such a card would be "absolutely useless as an antiterrorist measure" and would push Canada "toward becoming the kind of society where the police can stop anyone on the streets and demand 'Your papers, please.' "

Plan to snoop on fliers takes intrusion to new heights

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, fliers have put up with federal screeners inspecting their shoes, examining their belongings and, for some, even conducting body searches - all to ensure safe air travel.

But the government now is proposing to take screening to an unprecedented level of intrusiveness: rifling through extensive commercial and government data on all air travelers without their knowledge or permission and using the information to assign each flier a security-risk ranking.

In a brief announcement this month, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said it had hired defense contractor Lockheed Martin to build a national system that would screen travelers to ferret out those who pose a risk to air safety. The agency downplays the system's reach as no more intrusive than a credit check.

Yet an earlier, little-noticed filing by the TSA's former parent, the Department of Transportation, painted a more worrisome portrait. It outlines an unparalleled plan to review wide-ranging information on all passengers who book flights. The proposal is so sweeping that it could include searches of personal data - from parking tickets to Internet usage to credit reports.

The TSA's aim is to determine how much of a terror threat passengers pose before they board a plane. While the goal is sound, the plan crosses a line from security to invasion of privacy.

If the TSA proceeds with plans to start the program next year, it would represent a government-sanctioned reversal of longstanding privacy principles, without safeguards to prevent authorities' misuse of information they might obtain.

The TSA says its authority comes from a 2001 law that created the agency and mandates the use of a "computer-assisted passenger pre-screening system." Yet the TSA's plan goes far beyond any current government-data-collection system.

That alarms legal scholars, who say the proposal violates the Constitution's guarantee of protection from unwarranted government searches and the right to travel freely. Travelers are worried, too. A TSA test of the program this month at Delta Air Lines has spawned a boycott-Delta Web site that received hundreds of e-mails expressing concern about the security move.

Complaints also are being lodged by privacy watchdogs across the political spectrum, including former House Republican leader Dick Armey and the American Civil Liberties Union. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., warns that the plan authorizes "any fishing expedition imaginable."

Under the TSA's proposal, a computer would search passenger data obtained from airline-ticket information, government records and commercial databases that sell personal information gathered from scores of sources. Passengers then would be assigned one of three rankings printed in code on their boarding passes. Green would mean routine security, and yellow would require added checks. Red would bar passengers from flying and subject them to a law enforcement investigation.

Among the most troubling features of the plan, as described in the official notice and explained in interviews with TSA officials:

Widespread prying. The TSA would gain access to "financial and transactional data," such as credit reports and records of purchases. Even confidential business records could be scrutinized. Legal experts say the reach of the categories listed could open up a broad range of information about an individual's life. The TSA won't say what information would be off-limits.

Long-term dossiers. The TSA says data would be kept only until passengers completed their travel. But for individuals "deemed to pose a possible risk to transportation," the data would be kept "for up to 50 years."

Data sharing. Information on fliers rated as high risks could be given to private groups, the news media and government authorities.

Weak protections. The system would be exempt from federal privacy protections that grant individuals access to government records on them so errors can be corrected. That would prevent passengers from learning what is compiled on them or how their threat level was determined.

The TSA says the plan is still in the draft stages and promises that the version it puts into effect next year will be less intrusive. If that's the case, the TSA could allay public concerns by making public its actual plan.

For now, however, the proposal raises many of same privacy concerns as the Total Information Awareness system, a Pentagon domestic-anti-terrorism-surveillance system. That plan would comb government and other databases to spot threatening patterns, but it drew sharp criticism from Congress, which last month placed strict limits on the system.

The TSA is hiding behind the authorization from Congress to float its plan. If the agency isn't willing to change course, the same lawmakers who created this monster need to slay it. Passengers deserve a screening system that reduces the risk of terrorism without giving the government broad new authority to snoop into their private lives.