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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2006

Canada to Investigate Use of Thumbprint for Law School Test

Canada’s privacy commissioner has launched a joint investigation with its counterparts in Alberta and British Columbia to determine whether the practice of requiring students taking the Law School Admission Test to provide an imprint of their thumb violates the law.

The LSAT is administered by the Pennsylvania-based Law School Admission Council and is required for admission to all American Bar Association-approved law schools and most Canadian law schools.

However, Canadian applicants have complained to federal and provincial privacy commissions that under the USA Patriot Act, thumbprints and other personal information could be passed on to American law enforcement officials.

“All the complaints are about the collection of thumbprints,” Elizabeth Denham, of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta, told the Chronicle of Higher Education recently.

Officials of the Law School Admission Council say thumbprints have been collected since 1973 and the organization has never had a request for a thumbprint of any student. They argue the prints are needed to verify the identity of law school applicants and to prevent students from hiring imposters to take the test on their behalf.

The controversy has now caught the attention of the Council of Canadian Law Deans. Nathalie Des Rosiers, president of the CCLD and dean of the civil law division at the University of Ottawa, said “although not all Canadian law schools require the LSAT, many deans are very concerned about the thumbprinting practice.”

Des Rosiers added that the collection of thumbprints by an American entity constitutes a privacy risk for Canadian students because the Patriot Act contains provisions that allow U.S. federal agencies to use secret orders to retrieve and retain personal information without the consent or knowledge of the person involved.

In addition to this concern, Des Rosiers also said it’s not clear whether asking applicants to submit to fingerprinting in Canada is legal under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act and corresponding provincial laws.

She said the CCLD is discussing the practice of collecting personal identifiers with the Law School Admission Council to explore ways to safeguard the privacy of Canadian students.

“Depending on the outcome of these talks and the privacy commissioners’ opinions, some law schools could change their policies regarding the use of the LSAT in their admission procedures,” Des Rosiers said.

Other observers say the privacy concerns raised by the LSAT and other standardized admission tests extend far beyond the issue of collecting thumbprints.

“While the standardized tests have garnered the lion’s share of attention, the schools have been reticent to admit that full student records, including admission information, grades, papers and other evaluations, could conceivably also be made subject to a Patriot Act request,” warns Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa.