Thursday, April 17, 2008

Homeland Security Cheif Says Fingerprints Aren’t ‘Personal Data’

by Peter Swire

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has badly stumbled in discussing the Bush administration’s push to create stricter identity systems. Chertoff was recently in Canada discussing, among other topics, the so-called “Server in the Sky” program to share fingerprint databases among the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia.

In a recent briefing with Canadian press (which has yet to be picked up in the U.S.), Chertoff made the startling statement that fingerprints are “not particularly private”:

QUESTION: Some are raising that the privacy aspects of this thing, you know, sharing of that kind of data, very personal data, among four countries is quite a scary thing.

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Well, first of all, a fingerprint is hardly personal data because you leave it on glasses and silverware and articles all over the world, they’re like footprints. They’re not particularly private.

Many of us should rightfully be surprised that our fingerprints aren’t considered “personal data” by the head of DHS. Even more importantly, DHS itself disagrees. In its definition of “personally identifiable information” — the information that triggers a Privacy Impact Assessment when used by government — the Department specifically lists: “biometric identifiers (e.g., fingerprints).”

Chertoff’s comments have drawn sharp criticism from Jennifer Stoddart, the Canadian official in charge of privacy issues. “Fingerprints constitute extremely personal information for which there is clearly a high expectation of privacy,” Stoddart said.

There are compelling reasons to treat fingerprints as “extremely personal information.” The strongest reason is that fingerprints, if not used carefully, will become the biggest source of identity theft. Fingerprints shared in databases all over the world won’t stay secret for long, and identity thieves will take advantage.

A quick web search on “fake fingerprints” turns up cheap and easy methods for do-it-at-home fake fingerprints. As discussed by noted security expert Bruce Schneier, one technique is available for under $10. It was tried “against eleven commercially available fingerprint biometric systems, and was able to reliably fool all of them.” Secretary Chertof either doesn’t know about these clear results or chooses to ignore them. He said in Canada: “It’s very difficult to fake a fingerprint.”

Chertoff’s argument about leaving fingerprints lying around on “glasses and silverware” is also beside the point. Today, we leave our Social Security numbers lying around with every employer and numerous others. Yet the fact that SSNs (or fingerprints) are widely known exposes us to risk.

There have been numerous questions raised about how this Administration is treating our personal information. Secretary Chertoff’s comments show a new reason to worry — they don’t think it’s “personal” at all.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why We Have An Impossibly Complex Tax Code

(USATODAY EDITORIAL) As Americans approach another income-tax filing deadline, they are still burdened by an impossibly complex tax code that, with accompanying regulations, now consists of more than 60,000 pages.

The average person who prepares his or her own taxes spends 34 hours on a 1040 long form, according to the IRS. That's almost a full work week.

Of course, 84 million taxpayers, about 60% of the total, find the whole thing so daunting that they pay someone else to prepare their returns. This helps underwrite a $65 billion industry of tax preparation and related services, and it enables the wealthy to exploit the code's many artfully crafted loopholes.

Alas, few people in Washington seem to care about the taxpayer's plight. The last serious pruning of the tax code came in 1986; since then, it has grown like kudzu.

In his first three years in office, President Bush added new marginal rates, new deductions and a raft of temporary tax cuts. In 2004, a number of House Democrats, led by then-Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, decided to criticize Bush for the impossible complexity of the tax code. But the call for simplification went nowhere.

Even another presidential election year hasn't generated much talk of tax simplification. The major presidential candidates all propose tax changes, but none sees simplification as an end in itself.

Their plans can be summed up as follows: Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama want to rescind Bush's tax cuts on upper-income Americans to help fund ambitious and expensive health care plans; Republican John McCain promises not to rescind the Bush administration's tax cuts.

Beyond that, each candidate's plan has some modest tweaks. Obama, for instance, wants a 0% tax rate on low-income seniors. Clinton proposes an expanded savings account plan. McCain seeks some tax changes for health coverage.

Nor is there much interest in tax simplification in Congress. An early effort to repeal one of the most vexing elements of the code — the alternative minimum tax — fizzled for the simple reason that it would have to be paid for.

The sad truth about America's current political culture is that it no longer looks at the tax code as a way of efficiently raising revenue to provide for the common good. If it did, it would not tolerate a system so complex and subject to manipulation.

Rather, the income tax has morphed into a way of appealing to broad demographic groups and narrow lobbies to achieve political and policy goals. Groups that have influence get tax breaks. Groups that don't end up paying, in dollars and in time.


Monday, April 14, 2008

Is Hilary Trying To Get Breast Cancer?

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A large U.S. study has linked alcohol consumption to an increased risk of the most common type of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., eyes her shot of Crown Royal with Bronko's owner Nick Tarailo, right, as she stops at the bar during a campaign stop at Bronko's restaurant in Crown Point, Ind., on Saturday, April 12, 2008.

The analysis of data from more than 184,000 women is the biggest of three major studies to conclude that drinking raises the risk of breast cancer for older women like Hilary Clinton, Jasmine Lew, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute and the study's lead investigator said on Sunday.

The research found that women who had one to two small drinks a day were 32 percent more likely to develop a hormone-sensitive tumor. Three or more drinks a day raised the risk by 51 per cent.

"Regardless of the type of alcohol, the risk was evident," said Lew, presenting the findings here at a meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.

About 70 percent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have tumors that are positive for both the estrogen and progesterone receptors.

Lew said results from the NCI study lend credence to the theory that alcohol's interference with the metabolism of estrogen raises the risk of cancer.

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer killer of women, after lung cancer. It will be diagnosed in 1.2 million people globally this year and will kill 500,000. Will Hilary Clinton be one of them?

(By Deena Beasley; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)