WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security is putting to rest questions by a progressive think tank over recent comments made by Secretary Michael Chertoff that fingerprints are "hardly personal data."
A DHS spokeswoman told FOX News Wednesday that the department does not treat fingerprints any differently than any other protected private information.
“We take our privacy laws very seriously,” spokeswoman Laura Keehner said. “We will always seek to uphold privacy laws when in comes to biometric information in the databases.”
That would include fingerprints, Keehner added.
The confusion over privacy protections emerged after an April 9 meeting between Chertoff and Canadian reporters, a transcript of which was posted on the liberal Web site ThinkProgress.org. In the meeting, Chertoff was asked about collection of biometric information by U.S. law enforcement agencies.
"In general, what a biomentric does is two things. It allows us to verify that the person is who they say they are — and that's that, you know — our records or the records of another country. And (it) prevents people from impersonating somebody else, because the fingerprint will give them away," Chertoff said.
But in answering a question about privacy related to government storage of fingerprints, Chertoff opened a can of worms that critics quickly baited.
"First of all," Chertoff said, "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."
He added: "Sharing of fingerprints, though, protects privacy, because what it does is it prevents someone from pretending to be you. ... What a biometric allows a responsible person to do is say, wait a second, you’re not Michael Chertoff, because your fingerprint doesn’t match his fingerprint. Why would I not want to have that?"
Center for American Progress senior fellow Peter Swire wrote that Chertoff "badly stumbled in discussing the Bush administration’s push to create stricter identity systems."
"Many of us should rightfully be surprised that our fingerprints aren’t considered 'personal data' by the head of DHS," wrote Swire, who was the chief privacy adviser in the Office of Management and Budget under the Clinton administration.
Swire added that DHS' definition of “personally identifiable information” calls into question Chertoff's response because the list of personal details includes fingerprints. Swire said if they are not protected, fingerprints could easily be forged and used for identity theft.
Keehner said Chertoff's comments were taken out of context, and the secretary’s observation that fingerprints are “left everywhere by everyone” in no way meant to suggest that information contained in any U.S.-maintained biometric databases is not protected by domestic privacy laws.
FOX News' Ian McCaleb contributed to this report.