The cost of privacy

Scott McNealy wants to know who I am, but I’m not sure I want him to.

At an industry event in Orlando, Fla. on Thursday, Sun Microsystems Inc.’s CEO announced his support for a national identification system in the United States. He was quoted in a Reuters article as saying “Absolute anonymity breeds absolute irresponsibility,” and “If you get on a plane, I want to know who you are.”

And how does he plan to revoke the fundamental human right of privacy as recognized the United Nations? Why, with the thumbprint Java card that everyone would have to carry. By pressing your thumb against the card, it would verify whether you are the cardholder. I bet he’d also be willing to sell a few of those $10 million-plus servers to help store and track this information. Larry Ellison, Oracle Corp.’s CEO, has also gone on record as being in favour of such a program and said he would donate the software needed to create a national database.

In Canada, Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan announce on Friday funding for the new landed-immigrant identity cards. The new cards will have a number of security features that make them forge-resistant with the possibility of biometric features like fingerprinting.

The old system — a piece of paper — needed to be updated. What should concern us all, however, is that this could be the first slip on a slippery slope towards something dark and sinister. Should the United States adopt an identity card program, it’s not hard to imagine it pressuring the Feds to follow suit.

At their greatest extreme, identity programs include the Star of David imposed on Jews in Nazi Germany, or the labels imposed on non-Muslims by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan earlier this summer. Technology allows us to make these sorts of programs increasingly sophisticated in the manner by which information can be collected and potentially manipulated.

If you think the government can be trusted to act in good faith, you’d be wrong on that count, too. Mike Frost was a highly ranked officer for the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), the Canadian equivalent of the National Security Agency (NSA). He was in Mississauga, Ont. recently talking about his 34 years of experience in the spy game. While parts of his job were James Bond-esque, it also included listening in on the conversations of Joe and Jane Canuck, people who had never done a thing in their lives to warrant such a betrayal.

Frost also said Canada belongs to a five-nation intelligence gathering group established by the NSA called Echelon. The retired spy turned author said in some cases, a host country would ask one of the other members to monitor its citizens.

Without question, steps need to be taken to make Canada as safe as possible for ourselves and others, but Canada’s Privacy Commissioner offers a warning.

“If our reaction to terrorism is to obsessively and unnecessarily deprive ourselves of privacy and the freedoms that flow from it, then the forces of darkness would have won a great and terrible victory,” said George Radwanski. “Perhaps it will be necessary for some new intrusive measures to enhance security, but these choices must be made calmly, carefully and case by case.”

There is no escaping the tragic events of Sept. 11, but we must not let them or our technology imprison us either.

Geoffrey Downey is a staff writer for Shane Schick will return on Monday.

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