The Toronto Star
Wednesday, July 2, 1997

A single I.D. card?

When Ottawa invented the social insurance number in 1964, federal policy makers assured Canadians the nine-digit personal identifier would be used only for unemployment insurance and the Canada Pension Plan.

Today, you need your SIN to file a tax return, obtain a passport, apply for old age security, receive the federal Child Tax Benefit, even to get a farming permit. Schools use it to keep track of students. Banks use it to do credit checks. Landlords often demand it before renting an apartment.

None of this is illegal - although it is improper - because Parliament has never set legislated limits on the use of SINs. The closest it came was the Privacy Act of 1982, which says personal information collected for a purpose cannot be used for unrelated purposes. But when punching a single number into a government computer brings up an individual's age, marital status, employment history, tax records and a registry of all federal benefits received, it is impossible to prevent cross-referencing.

Now Ottawa and the provinces are considering a further step. They are studying a plan to issue a single identification card for all federal and provincial social programs. This would allow the two levels of government to pool information on Employment Insurance claimants, welfare recipients, pensioners, workers' compensation claimants, immigrants and refugees.

It would certainly be tidier to have one central registry. It might reduce administrative costs. And it would make it easier for public officials to detect fraud. But before our political leaders approve such a plan, they should be prepared to answer several questions:

Technology offers governments the tools to compile ever-more-detailed records about their citizens. The only safeguard a society has is its own will to set limits.

Copyright © 1997 by The Toronto Star. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.