Monday, September 08, 2014

McCraw offers weak defense of gathering all ten fingerprints from drivers

Texas DPS Col. Steve McCraw had an op ed recently (Sept. 4) in the Dallas Morning News attempting to justify the agency's decision this year to begin collecting all ten fingerprints of driver license applicants and on renewals instead of merely a thumbprint as in the past.

The Colonel claims that "the only reliable way to establish a person’s identity is to collect all 10 fingerprints," which seems an unlikely assertion at best. Think about it: Under what circumstances would collecting 10 fingerprints do a better job of establishing identity than just a thumbprint for the purposes of verifying identity for drivers licenses? If you can imagine such a scenario, please describe it in the comments. After all, somebody who enters the DL center with a severed thumb won't be allowed to swipe the bloody appendage when asked for a thumbprint at the desk.

Bizarrely, McCraw counters concerns that the fingerprints would be integrated into criminal databases, by assuring Texans their fingers will, in fact be entered into those systems:
Some have falsely stated that the fingerprint images obtained at driver’s license offices are used to search an applicant’s criminal history — but this is simply not true. The state’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System is a fingerprint identification database; it can only be accessed for investigative or statutory purposes. Without 10 prints to integrate into the system, there are major gaps in public safety that leave law-abiding citizens vulnerable to identity theft and other schemes of criminal operatives.
This argument is a red herring. Nobody has said the fingerprints would be used to run criminal histories (which can be done by name); the complaint is that they'd be uploaded into the same database as criminals, which he admits they will.

The purpose of AFIS is identifying bad guys. Entering the fingerprints of every Texas driver does nothing to protect people from "identity theft," it just means their prints will be run against prints retrieved from crime scenes by police investigators, even if they've never been arrested. State Rep. Ron Simmons, a defender of the agency on this subject, was more honest with the public on his website which openly admitted, "All applicant fingerprints are run against the Texas unsolved latent print file, which is comprised of statewide crime scene fingerprint evidence."

The Colonel also overstated the extent to which state law expressly authorized this change. In 2003, the House of Representatives had a very specific debate on whether to collect all ten fingerprints and the idea was defeated 111-26. Then in 2005, the Lege said they could collect thumbprints or fingerprints, based on the argument that someone with missing or damaged thumbs may not have prints. But stretching that to claim authority to collect all ten after the 2003 vote takes chutzpah. This is a new interpretation that does not jibe with legislative discussions at the time the law was passed.
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The Legislature really should step in next session to put a stop to this and order all but thumbprints expunged, which was without doubt the legislative intent back in 2003 and 2005 when the relevant statutes were passed. There could be a bill to that effect, or perhaps they could attach a budget rider forbidding the agency from spending money on their drivers license database if they collect more than one print per driver.

Clearly McCraw is feeling heat and felt the need to defend the policy, but this was pretty weak. If the Tea Party folks want to have any credibility with their small-government base, one would expect this Big Brotherish maneuver to come under attack when the 84th Texas Legislature convenes in January. There are bipartisan reasons to object to this and I suspect a coalition could be cobbled together to end it.


Anonymous said...

The op-ed is a little late to be useful. Quite a few programs coming out of DPS of late have a generally subversive, nefarious aura about them absent any current legitimate legislative input. As Grits has mentioned before, you have to wonder who is really in charge. The insider's know the current director's motives, and they have nothing to do with public safety.

Anonymous said...

I'm a native Texan who works for the state and yet, every time my license is up for renewal, I am barred from renewing online and have to go to DPS with a copy of my social security card and official, long-form birth certificate. Every time. For the last 20 years. You'd think they would know who I am at this point. I don't think your birthplace changes throughout one's life, right? Now they want all of my prints? En serio?

Anonymous said... All ten may reduce the incidence of false matches. But as you so vividly describe and report, Scott, it still doesn't eliminate dry-labbing and forensics malfeasance (which I think may be more common than many would like to believe).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

False matches may be the least of our problems. Fwiw, a lot of smart phones, tablets and computers now use fingerprints in lieu of passwords, as do many other biometric security devices - the tech has become really cheap. So among other things the government is gathering a databank of hundreds of thousands if not millions smart-phone/computer passwords over time - an issue this blog raised as far back as 2005, btw.