Last month, the Texas Department of Public Safety started collecting full sets of fingerprints from every Texan who comes into their offices for a new driver's license or a renewal.
But the regulation that DPS adopted for this new policy didn't take effect until July 6. The department may have jumped the gun, but that's the least of the legal trouble it may get into with this policy, which includes uploading the prints to a criminal history database.
The department's lawyers insist the new rule is authorized by existing law. That law, however, was passed almost 10 years ago and has never been interpreted like this.
Scott Henson, who covered the debate 10 years ago for his widely read criminal justice blog, Grits for Breakfast, says Texas lawmakers had no such intention. In fact, when the idea was put to a vote during the 78th Legislature, it was rejected by the state House, 111-26.
"I remember when that law passed and thought we [privacy advocates] won," he wrote in an email Thursday. "Can't believe they're pretending that was permission to do this. [Jon] Cassidy's depiction of the original intent — thumbprint OR index finger — is definitely how I remember it ending."
The Department of Public Safety is using a stray reference to "fingerprints" in the legislation as proof that they're allowed to collect sets of fingerprints. As I pointed out Wednesday, the reference to fingerprints, plural, exists because of a requirement that driver's license applications "include: 1) the thumbprints of the applicant or, if thumbprints cannot be taken, the index fingerprints of the applicant."
For those who shrug their shoulders, figuring they're not criminals so the intrusion is unlikely to affect them, Henson points to a "grave risk" in biometric recordkeeping that's easy to overlook.
"If biometrics become a standard form of ID that can unlock things like access to bank accounts, public benefits, or even the ballot box, they become just another piece of valuable data waiting for a thief to steal," he writes. "If my credit card number is stolen, I can get it changed with some trouble. But if someone figures out how to fake my fingerprint or my iris scan to access my credit, my bank account, medical data, or other personal information, how can anyone ever return what's been taken from me?"
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