le 20 mars 1999
MUSINGS BY MADDOCKS
by Ralph Maddocks
Anyone who listened to the embattled President Clinton's last State of
the Union Address heard him propose a new, federally administered, «
digital mug shot » database program. This is
a computer link-up of all the various states' existing digital driver's
licence photographs. In fact, such a system was one of the primary, secretive,
hidden purposes for changing over to digital photographs in the first place;
something which almost every state in the USA has now done. West Virginia,
trying to lead the pack went one better and uses digital «
facial recognition » technology as well.
The US Department of Transportation telegraphed their real intentions about
digital photos in their booklet « The Highway Safety
Deskbook » published some time ago for the benefit of
law enforcement personnel. In it, they stated that the American Association
of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) has been trying for several years
to standardize driver's licences across the United States. The AAMVA's
plan includes digital driver's licence photos and digital fingerprints.
The Deskbook further revealed the true objective in going to digital photos
as follows: « With a central image database of every
driver in a state, the public safety community has a ready-made storehouse
of photos to be used in criminal investigations. Due to the electronic
nature of these images, they can be obtained in seconds via a computer
retrieval unit in the department or even faxed or thermal printed directly
to the patrol car. These same images can also be brought into a photo array
for suspect identification. The uses for these images are limited only
by the wants and needs of the public safety community. »
Naturally, no one was told when they had their digital driver's licence
photograph taken that it would one day be placed in a federal «
mug shot » database. It is now too late to protest.
Digitally captured photos, signatures, and fingerprints are un-retrievable
once they are placed into the system. These digitized databases are backed
up to several locations each night, and in fact they may have already shared
or distributed the digital information to other systems without the licencee's
knowledge or consent. They (the state licensing agencies) are under no
obligation whatsoever to tell the licencee what they have done with, or
are going to do with, the personal « identifying »
information supplied to them by the licence applicant.
In the winter of 1998 it was reported that Florida had already contracted
to sell their driver’s photographs, names and addresses to a private company
for commercial use, all 14 million of them. More recently,
South Carolina released 3.5 million of its digital photographs and received
the handsome sum of $5 000 for so doing. Louisiana and New
Hampshire rejected an approach by the same company to buy their driver’s
These perfidious acts have now been emulated by other states who also sell
the images and information wholesale. A limitless treasure trove of personal
data is now available thanks to modern technology.
A licence to move
The excuse used by the company purchasing the photos was that it wished
to offer retailers a means of preventing identity theft, sadly a growing
crime – in which unscrupulous fraud artists use a victim’s personal information
to run up large credit bills or to empty their bank account. This type
of fraudulent activity is said to cost Florida alone $570 million annually.
The images are cross-referenced to personal information harvested from
public and private sources. In addition to names and addresses, the database
will contain an individual's Social Security number, age, sex, race and
any other details from a driver's file, as well as limited information
about each transaction made by the unsuspecting consumer. The database
will come into play whenever a customer at a participating retailer attempts
to use a credit card or check.
On a small screen near the cash register, the company’s computers will
flash the photo of the person named on the credit card or cheque for some
eight seconds, thus enabling the retailer to identify the purchaser. In
the past, various states have been selling personal data on a routine basis
to direct marketers and information services etc. What is new, is the addition
of digitized photographs to the mixture, an element which, though improving
security, raises the issue of privacy yet again. Finally, a «
mug shot » file of honest citizens.
Traditionally, drivers’ photos have been controlled very closely, with
only law enforcement officials having access to them. Those same law enforcement
authorities, who, for example, now use computer-assisted cameras to «
read » licence plates of cars that have run through red lights,
or as in Britain use them in public areas to scan for known criminal suspects.
Critics of the system fear that it will create a sense of unwanted surveillance
among many people and that the photos will be used for other purposes by
private detectives and telemarketers who may wish to match faces with other
private information. Given the increase in the number of persons who will
now have access to them these fears are not unreasonable.
In New York’s recent state budget there was a line showing anticipated
income of some $2 million from the sale of computerized driver's
licence photos and other information to private firms. Following the uproar
raised by some State Senators, the Governor immediately withdrew the item
claiming that it had been included by mistake.
This brings to four the number of states that have been « discovered
to have contracted for the sale of drivers' license photos ».
One might ask if it would be logical to assume that every state has been
so involved, especially since the national ID card legislation at the federal
level was included in their highway transportation bill. In South Carolina,
Florida and Colorado the matter is on hold pending further legal action
by their attorneys general.
All the above is related to the United States. However, it should not be
forgotten that the AAMVA includes among its membership all the Canadian
provinces, and it will be interesting to see if our provinces copy their
southern neighbours. It will also be interesting to see how they do it,
and whether we shall find out about it before or after they have done it.
de Ralph Maddocks