Dmv End Run Threatens Our Privacy

by Richard Holober, CFC Executive Director, California Progress Report

On January 14th the California Department of Finance notified the Joint Legislative Budget Committee that it plans to issue a new vendor contract for the Department of Motor Vehicles for the production of California Driver’s Licenses and ID cards starting in June of 2009.

Hidden in the fine print of this innocuous sounding letter, the proposed contract calls for ‘enhanced’ biometric identification in driver’s licenses, including the creation of a facial recognition technology database. Unless this legislative committee objects by February 11, the Department of Motor Vehicles will be free to implement new technology that elected leaders have never approved and that poses massive threats to our personal privacy.

The Consumer Federation of California has joined the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, California Eagle Forum, Consumers Union, Privacy Activism, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and the World Privacy Forum in calling on the legislature to reject this plan while there’s still time.

Biometric technology is the computerized matching of an individual’s personal characteristics (like a thumbprint or facial scan) against a database of images. The DMV proposal would establish a new government database of biometric information for 25 million Californians, without any public debate.

One would expect, in light of the growing controversy over the REAL ID Act (a federal plan to create a national identity card based on driver’s licenses) and the revelations of privacy violations committed by the federal government, that such a program would be vetted in the open by our representatives in the State Legislature, with public comment, before it could ever be enacted.

Instead, the DMV has tried to fly under the radar screen, by slipping this significant policy initiative in a bland notice of the intent to renew a contract for producing driver’s licenses.

Biometric identification uses computer scans and matches to replace the human role in verifying identity. Law enforcement currently has access for criminal identification to California DMV’s database which includes thumbprints and photos of more than 25 million people. As public and private surveillance cameras become more ubiquitous, privacy advocates have raised the alarm that facial recognition devices will go beyond legitimate criminal investigations and become a tool to track and record the movements of innocent people.

Sound far fetched? Think again. Consider the retroactive immunity that Congress gave to phone companies last year for their unlawful collaborationism with federal spying on the phone calls of vast numbers of law abiding Americans suspected of having subversive characteristics. Then consider that the DMV contract proposal would give government snoops new weapons to identify and record your presence at a protest rally or picket line. California lawmakers should stand up against the further expansion of government data collection technology that can be used to invade our privacy without first setting ironclad rules that limit its use to essential and lawful purposes.

Beyond fundamental first amendment and privacy concerns, the security of any biometric database should be addressed in a legislative hearing process. Any biometric database must have safeguards against hacking by an identity thief who could substitute his or her fingerprints or facial scan in someone else’s file to create a false identity.

The Department of Finance memo plays down the cost of the new and expanded biometric identification system, stating that there are ‘significantly higher cost of doing business in the current market and economic environment’ as compared to the last vendor contract for driver’s licenses issued ten years ago.

Let’s not forget that California is going broke. Can we afford the DMV’s immediate costs of $4.3 million in this fiscal year, and estimates of $12.5 million per year in each subsequent year? Which teachers and police officers will be laid off to cover the added costs of an ID system that the legislature never approved?

We ask the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to object to the DMV’s proposal to impose sweeping new biometric technologies under the guise of a renewal of a routine vendor contract. A change of this magnitude is a policy matter for the legislature to decide, after considering whether it is secure, affordable, and protective of our privacy.