Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Privacy advocates prevail - DMV biometric plan to undergo public hearings

Now this is what I call high political drama (and a big victory for privacy advocates)!

With one day to spare, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) stepped in to reject the DMV’s proposal to impose sweeping new biometric technologies - such as facial and thumb print scans - as elements in a renewal of a vendor contract to produce driver’s licenses and ID cards.

The Consumer Federation of California had joined organizations from across the political spectrum – including the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, California Eagle Forum, Consumers Union, Privacy Activism, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and the World Privacy Forum - to urge the legislature to reject the DMV's request on the grounds that any change of this magnitude should be a policy matter for the legislature to decide, after considering whether it is effective, affordable, and if it contains the appropriate privacy safeguards.

If the JLBC did not act in time the proposal would have moved forward. Thankfully, at the very last moment a letter that was unequivocal in its opposition to the proposal was sent to the DMV from Senator Denise Ducheny - the Committee Chair.

Click here to read the complete letter.

Here's a particularly important passage:

"Of particular concern is the proposed use of biometric technology as part of the card issuance process and the related privacy issues. I think the Legislature should consider the policy implications of using biometrics in the issuance of driver licenses before the department starts to use the technology. In addition, after review and discussions with DMV, the Analyst concluded that the request was not fully justified, in part because the department was unable to provide key information on the specific costs and benefits related to the proposed use of biometrics."

For a backdrop on all that transpired in the last week, and a more detailed explanation of biometrics technology and how it poses a threat to privacy if not properly implemented, here's our (CFC) most recent article on the subject.

I'd also like to thank Edwin Garcia of the San Jose Mercury News for covering this slick attempt by the DMV to circumvent the democratic process. He covered the initial story in an article last week, and did so again once the verdict came down from the JLBC on Thursday.

Garcia writes:

A key legislative committee has blocked the DMV's request to fast-track a new technology that the agency is seeking to deter identity theft, scoring a victory for privacy-rights groups. The Department of Motor Vehicles recently proposed a $63 million contract with a company that uses facial-recognition software, which can detect whether a person photographed for a new driver's license already has a license. The software allows the DMV to match a photograph with the entire DMV database of driver's license pictures.

But privacy groups strongly objected, fearing police could borrow the DMV's biometric technology to monitor people at public gatherings. Privacy groups said police would be able to photograph "innocent people" and scan their picture into the software, then match it with the database, which in turn could reveal a person's name and address.

The DMV sought permission from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign the contract as early as this week, without the scrutiny of public hearings. Privacy advocates and Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, objected.

On Thursday, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee used its power to block the DMV from fast-tracking the contract.

"I think the Legislature should consider the policy implications of using biometrics in the issuance of driver's licenses before the department starts to use the technology," wrote committee Chairwoman Denise Moreno Ducheny in a letter to the Administration. As a result of the letter, the DMV's request for the five-year contract will undergo public hearings.

Granted, we have only temporarily averted this power grab by the Administration and the DMV. Still, its quite an accomplishment - and a victory - to first discover that this proposal was even in the works, and then stop it in its tracks in the two week window that we were afforded. Now comes the bigger fight...for the public to see and the legislature to decide. I will keep you all up to speed as this debate transpires.

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