Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Man Refuses Biometric Driver's Licence

Fear of the Antichrist pushes farmer to fight Ontario bid to take his picture
Man refuses to provide biometric data for driver's licence, based on religious beliefs
Sarah Staples
The Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, October 20, 2004

In Canada's first legal case involving the use of biometric information by governments, an Ontario farmer who was denied a driver's licence because he would not let his digital picture be taken will appear in court this week arguing the province's decision infringed on his right to religious freedom.

George Bothwell, a 57-year-old organic farmer from Owen Sound, believes that allowing a photo to be added to his Ontario Ministry of Transportation-issued licence would mark him for the Antichrist.

So strong was his conviction, that in 1997, Mr. Bothwell applied for a religious exemption from the photo requirement. But in 2003, after a nearly six-year wait, the exemption was turned down. He is slated to appear before Ontario Superior Court justices, beginning tomorrow, seeking to overturn the provincial ruling so that his driver's licence may be reinstated.

Clayton Ruby, a Toronto defence lawyer who is representing Mr. Bothwell, said the landmark case promises not only to reinterpret Canadians' Charter-inscribed right to freedom of conscience and religion, but may influence the way sensitive personal information is handled in the future.

"The value that's in play is privacy of religious thought and action on the one hand, against the need for governments to collect biometric data," Mr. Ruby said.

Privacy advocates say increasingly centralized government databases containing mounds of personal data are an enticing target for hackers, and secondary uses of the information have become difficult to track.

"Whether it's health records that are constantly found in backyards and ditches and dumps, or the selling of motor vehicle information to collection agencies for profit by the Ontario government, the lesson of the 21st century is, if you give data to governments, it keeps getting passed along to other hands," the lawyer said.

Mr. Bothwell did not object to a two-part driver's licence Ontario issued beginning in 1996 -- which consisted of a Polaroid photo laminated into a plastic card, and a blue paper permit -- because both items, including the original photo, were given back to drivers to keep.

Digital images kept in a government database replaced the Polaroids in 1997.

In Mr. Bothwell's opinion, 17th-century translators of the King James version of the Bible, who had no concept of digital photography or fingerprinting, erred in interpreting the original Greek verse of Revelations, Chapter 13:14, to mean that man would be deceived into receiving the Beast's "mark on the right hand or the forehead."

His own reconstruction of the holy text's meaning yields "to give or bestow one's exact likeness, in the midst of the face, as a badge of servitude."

"The scripture speaks to every individual heart differently," he said, "and who's to say who is right? The truth will be revealed in time."

A spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General would not comment on a case before the courts. However, documents filed in pre-trial hearings argue that the transportation ministry places a "justifiable limit" on religious freedom in a bid to deter "suspect and unreliable claims for religious exemptions" and preserve the aim of the licence, which is to keep fraudsters and terrorists from getting hold of multiple forged pieces of ID.

The province also argues Mr. Bothwell's objection is based on "perceived threats to individual and personal liberty" and not "sincere' religious belief."

Mr. Ruby says it is unjustifiable that the province demand, among other things, that applicants claiming an exemption be part of an organized religion that is officially recognized by the government.