Montréal, le 20 mars 1999
Numéro 33
  (page 6)
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            Vos commentaires           
 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. 
Face value 
          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 photographs.  
          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.     
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