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Michael Knell

Court upholds Leon's Furniture anti-fraud measures in Alberta

EDMONTON, Alberta — Leon's Furniture stores in this province will be allowed to continue to record driver's license and car license plate numbers as a fraud prevention measure after the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an appeal by the Alberta Information & Privacy Commissioner to uphold his original ruling that forbade the practice.

This dispute between Leon's and Privacy Commissioner Frank Work began when a woman picked up a table for her daughter after a Boxing Day sale in 2006.

She protested when the store recorded the number from her driver's license and protested a second time when her license plate number was recorded after the table was loaded. The woman subsequently complained to the commissioner's office.

At the time, Leon's told the commissioner the information was needed to prevent theft and fraud, adding that it was kept secure and only forwarded to authorities if a complaint was made.

However, a commission adjudicator said the practice went beyond what was needed to prevent fraud.

"Driver's license numbers are very sensitive pieces of information that are extremely valuable to fraudsters and identity thieves," the adjudicator, Keri Ridley, wrote in her initial ruling. She said it was reasonable for Leon's to verify the identity of the person picking up the merchandise, but not to record personal information.

The commissioner's ruling was upheld by the Court of Queen's Bench but was overturned by the Alberta Court of Appeal.

In her analysis of the decision published on the website Lexology, Eileen Vanderburgh of the Vancouver law firm Alexander Holburn Beaudin & Lang said the Court of Appeal believed the commissioner "failed to properly balance the privacy of Leon's customers with the legitimate business interests of Leon's to prevent fraud and to protect its interests and its customers' interests where fraud may have occurred."

The Supreme Court did not provide reasons for its decision not to hear the case, which is its usual practice.

Geoff Hall, one of the lawyers who represented Leon's, told the Canadian Press the courts have said that reason has a place in the debate around privacy rights.

"No one is saying that privacy is unimportant. Clearly it is very important. But if businesses or others using personal information act reasonably, then that is perfectly fine," Hall said.

In his application to the Supreme Court, Work disagreed with the appellate court and said its ruling created a dangerous precedent because it allows a business to decide for itself what information it can collect from a customer.

"We are moving backwards," he said. "The decision means that businesses can circumvent the intention of the legislation and can decide, entirely on their own, what personal information they can collect."

Vanderburgh said the ruling is important because the results of the Alberta case will set a precedent for other provinces, particularly British Columbia, whose privacy legislation is quite similar to that of its neighbor.

However, Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian said at a conference this week that the practice of collecting driver's license and license plate numbers is illegal in Ontario.

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