Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Biometric Blues

Should Texans have to give up "facial recognition" data and all ten fingerprints -- just like they were being booked into the county jail -- in order to get a driver's license?

Chairman Frank Corte, Rep. Leo Berman, and a majority of the Texas House
Defense Affairs Committee say ''Yes." That committee's #1 recommendation in its Interim Report (pdf) heading into the 79th Legislature is to allow the Texas Department of Public Safety to gather new "biometric data" – or new types of measurements about your physical body – as part of driver’s license applications. The Committee admitted the issue is "controversial," and that not even all committee members agree with the recommendation.

The vast majority of the Texas House of Representatives
opposed a similar bill by Chairman Corte last year. SB 945 passed without debate in the Senate, but died in the House after a vigorous debate over the effect it would have on civil liberties. In a dramatic bipartisan 111-26 vote, the Texas House of Representatives rejected SB 945 in the 78th Legislature, which would have required drivers to give “biometric data” in order to get a license.

In particular, that bill would have required drivers to give all ten fingerprints instead of just a thumbprint – just like they were being booked into the county jail. Plus, drivers would have to let DPS gather “facial recognition” data, which in theory would allow individuals to be identified from videotapes and photographs. As originally written, SB 945 would have also allowed iris scans and voice recordings that could be matched with information from wiretaps.

The Interim Report this time doesn't exclude those other technologies, but seems especially focused on allowing facial recognition from video, insisting that DPS needs technology that allows them to quickly match "one to many faceprints."

The committee's arguments focus on the need to verify identities of people getting a driver's license, but DPS is more ambitious.
Language the agency supported in SB 945 went far beyond confirming identities of renewing licenseholders. It would have removed all restrictions on how biometric information could be used, granting access to the information for any law enforcement purpose.

After the embarrassingly lopsided vote on the House floor last year, I'm surprised Chairman Corte still wants a piece of this bill. There must be powerful interests pushing it behind the scenes.

UPDATE: See Biometric Blues, Second Stanza

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