Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Biometric Blues, Second Stanza

Earlier today, as near as I can tell, Grits broke the story that the Texas House Defense Affairs Committee made gathering biometric data during driver's license applications its #1 recommendation in its Interim Report (pdf), headed into the 79th Texas Legislaure.

To understand how bad that would be, you have to understand what civil libertarians LOST in the 78th Legislature. Together with bad laws already passed, legislative plans for instant one-to-many facial recognition systems would expand large-scale, secret government surveillance of Texans beyond the realm of science fiction to full-blown reality.

"Biometric identifiers" are statistical data about your face, body or voice that can be used to identify you from a photograph, video, or tape recording.

Developments in digital video, infrared, x-ray, wireless, global positioning satellite systems, biometrics, image scanning, voice recognition, DNA, and brain wave fingerprinting provide government with new ways to "search" individuals and collect vast databases of information on law-abiding Texans.

The founding fathers never thought about these kinds of "searches" when drafting the Fourth Amendment, but we have to think about them now.

Meanwhile, since 9-11, the use of surveillane cameras has skyrocketed. Last year, DPS and the University of Texas pushed for an amendment to make "locations, specifications and operating procedures" related to security cameras closed records. That means the public can't know where government cameras are, whether the camera can zoom, rotate or see through clothing, who has access to it, or what the government does with video it collects.

University of Texas lobbyists pushed the amendment, which is worded precisely like an open records request from the Daily Texan that UT fought in court. UT sued Attorney General Greg Abbott unsuccessfully to keep secret the locations of surveillance cameras it uses to monitor students. Failing in court, UT turned to the Legislature, spending taxpayer and tuition money to lobby for secret surveillance.

The House passed the bill without making camera locations secret, but Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, the Senate bill sponsor, added UT's language and wrapped the whole thing into HB 9, the governor's homeland security bill.

The only hat tip toward openness: The Senate voted for an amendment so that LEGISLATORS and government bureaucrats in private offices could know if THEY were being surveilled. Really, I couldn't make this stuff up.

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst's homeland security task force recommended that anti-terrorism efforts must be "consistent with the protection of all civil liberties." Secret government surveillance cameras that identify individuals from videotape using massive, centralized databases surely don't fit that description. Given the alleged speed of biometric identification software and the proliferation of cameras at intersections and elsewhere, literally every Texan with a driver's license could be identified and tracked everywhere we go in our daily lives, without any pretense of probable cause.

If the Defense Affairs Committee recommendation passes, current law won't stop this privacy invasion -- the only way to keep such systems from being abused is to never create them.

In Michigan, police used video cameras to spy inside public restrooms, and used a law enforcement database to stalk women, threaten motorists and settle scores. The database was improperly used to check out attractive women officers spotted on the road, along with ex-wives and even colleagues.

In Washington DC, an officer responsible for investigating extortion plots used surveillance databases to gather information on people visiting gay bars, then blackmailed them with threats to inform their employers and cuckolded spouses.

With camera information already secret, the biometric identifiers needed to spot an individual from video, and instant "one-to-many" image search capability via government databases, what's to stop similar or worse abuses in Texas?

Unless the Legislature revisits the question, secret surveillance cameras are the current legal reality. By collecting biometric identifiers on every driver and ID card holder - Texans suddenly will live in a place where law enforcement can monitor and track individuals virtually wherever we go in public. No longer will surveillance videos be anonymous - a database could match faces, fingerprints or even voiceprints to names, addresses or even credit reports as we go through our daily lives.

The only reason such proposals are remotely viable is sort of a latent, baseline level of public fear still lingering after 9-11. Speaking for the biometrics bill on the floor of the 78th Legislature, Rep. Warren Chisum declared, "This is Big Brother watching over your safety." The line received guffaws in the House, but that's really the only argument you hear from the Big Government Conservatives pushing biometrics.

George Orwell coined the term "Big Brother" to describe a futuristic vision of Eastern Bloc totalitarianism at the height of the Cold War. But changes in technology have made possible a world where Big Brother isn't just a story. It could become a day-to-day reality for Texans. And it could happen quietly, easily, without much fanfare and commotion - with just a few tweaks to the law.

Want a glimpse of the future? This web site is marketing $150 cameras called the "Police Force" that see through clothing; the picture is on a page marketing directly to police:

If the Defense Affairs Committee proposal passes, an officer could see this woman on a secret camera then look up her home address and phone number, or even information with which to blackmail her. Creepy.

See Biometric Blues

UPDATE: See also Biometric Blues, Third Stanza

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