Motorists Must Surrender Biometric Data to Get License

This weekly post features recent news stories that highlight and update themes previously covered throughout NMA E-Newsletters and Alerts.

Editor’s Note: The realities of routine, domestic surveillance recently hit home for Dallas Morning News columnist Dave Lieber. Lieber was surprised to learn that the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) now requires a full set of fingerprints from motorists seeking a driver’s license, unless they’re applying through the mail. Previously it only required a thumbprint.

DPS also uses facial recognition software to compare driver’s license photos against other government databases looking for wanted persons, known criminals and the like. A DPS spokesperson said motorists’ fingerprints are not compared against the national fingerprint database. DPS will, however, share fingerprint and facial recognition data with law enforcement agencies for legitimate law enforcement purposes.

Spurred by a push to transform the driver’s license into a de facto national ID card, more and more states are requiring motorists to provide some form of biometric data as a condition of licensing. In 2012 the NMA analyzed the spread of biometric surveillance and its implications for motorists in NMA E-Newsletter #197.

NMA E-Newsletter #197: Don’t Smile for the Camera
Posted on Oct. 21, 2012

Given their state’s ongoing red-light camera debacle, New Jersey motorists may not have much to smile about these days, but that’s OK with the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. That’s because the commission has banned drivers from smiling for their driver’s license photos.

Apparently drivers showing off their pearly whites confuse the new facial recognition software New Jersey launched earlier this year. The stated aim of the system is to prevent people from acquiring driver’s licenses under alternate identities. It works by comparing a new photo with others in the database. If the new photo matches an existing photo with a different name, the alarms go off and investigators jump in.

New Jersey is not alone in its integration of facial recognition into the driver’s licensing process. According to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, most states use some form of driver’s license facial recognition. A handful, like Texas and California, also require drivers to give up a fingerprint, or two, along with their mug shot. (Look here to find out what to expect in your state the next time you renew your license.)

Welcome to the world of biometrics—the use of unique physical or behavioral characteristics to verify an individual’s identity. Other examples of biometric identifiers include iris scans, palm prints, gait analysis, voice analysis and our old friend DNA testing. (Learn more about the technology of biometrics and its application in driver’s licensing.)

Addressing the security gaps in current identification systems could no doubt thwart a huge range of criminal activity—from identity theft and fraud to terrorism. It’s worth noting that the 9/11 hijackers held dozens of valid driver’s licenses from five states, which helped them defeat airport security measures designed to flag potential terrorists.

But, as usual, there’s a downside. Privacy advocates point out the huge potential for abuse. As surveillance cameras become ubiquitous and capable of recording finer detail, tracking of individuals (whether they’re in their cars, or not) will become easier and easier. Cross reference the biometrics with other data points like a social security number, an address, even GPS coordinates, and the cocoon of surveillance becomes complete. Here you’ll find a more detailed discussion of the possible privacy abuses facilitated through biometrics.

In the wake of 9/11, policymakers called for stronger national standards to verify the identity of driver’s license applicants. This led to the Real ID Act of 2005 which established requirements for a national identification system based on the driver’s license. Among the 18 benchmarks the states must comply with is the implementation of facial recognition.

Despite being enacted seven years ago, Real ID has not been fully implemented. Many states, citing a range of privacy and budget concerns, have rejected the act through statute or legislative resolution, or have simply refused to comply.

But while the future of Real ID is uncertain, the states continue their quiet, steady push to collect more and more sensitive information from motorists through stiffer driver’s license registration requirements, including biometric data.

If Real ID is a bust, why do states continue to burden drivers (and jeopardize their privacy) with such intrusive data collection measures?

Part of the answer involves legitimate security concerns, but it’s doubtful that even full implementation of Real ID will move the needle much on national security, and ironically, it will erode the personal security of motorists. Read more about that here.

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