The Hamilton Spectator
Friday, May 16, 1997
page A12

Thumbs down on fingerprinting

Premier Harris' proposal to fingerprint Ontario residents
is far too intrusive for an unlikely benefit in reducing fraud

The Harris government needs to reconsider its musings about the fingerprinting of all Ontario residents to prevent people from fraudulently obtaining government services such as welfare.

Ontario's privacy commissioner, Tom Wright, questions the proposal, saying it could pose a serious threat to confidentiality and might not save much - if any - money.

Most welfare fraud is by people collecting an income while receiving benefits, not by claiming under different names. As a result, the cost of setting up and administering such a system could cost more than the amount that would be saved by preventing, or catching, welfare cheats.

And there is so much more that could be done just to solve the more usual ways of defrauding the system.

The more serious concern about fingerprinting is more amorphous in shape and insidious in nature, making it all the more threatening.

Governments have accumulated incredible amounts of information about our personal lives and are fully capable of using it against us. And there are signs that this treasure trove of information will soon become much wealthier even without fingerprinting.

There are plans, for instance, to issue so-called smart cards to all Ontario citizens that would contain vast quantities of personal medical information.

Naturally this and other initiatives are not being considered for nefarious purposes. In the case of the smart cards, it's part of a plan to end duplication in our medical system and to give doctors an up-to-date picture of a patient's condition, no matter where they are treated.

A fingerprint file provides a digital catch basin for all this information, giving whoever holds this data vast power.

Governments have and will use this information for their own political gain.

We don't have to dig very far back into the history books for evidence of this. It was only a few months ago that a communications assistant for Health Minister Jim Wilson lost his job for leaking income information about a doctor who was loudly opposing the government's health-care policies.

And what if a cash-strapped, market-driven, government down the road decides that it can solve its budget woes by selling the information it has accumulated on its citizens?

Firms would pay very large sums to be able to direct their commercial material specifically at the groups most interested in their client's products. A firm selling medication for AIDS, for example, might see great profit in a direct mailing to victims of this disease.

It might be argued that a government would never do this.

That's questionable in itself. But health care or welfare might not always be in the hands of government. Some future group of politicians, for example, may decide that our health-care system would be better run by large health care firms that come and go by contract.

And if we roll over on this one, what's to stop a future efficiency-conscious government concerned about drug use from requiring regular blood and urine samples?

People may argue that, since they are doing nothing wrong, they are not concerned about such measures. But this activity is both degrading and incongruous with the basic tenets of a democratic society.

Democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people. We do not, and should not, readily accept instruments of control that serve to distort this equation.

Copyright © 1997 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.