[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

Hoch lebe der Datenschutz

Posing a Privacy Problem?
Driver's-License Photos Used in Anti-Fraud Database

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 1999; Page A01

For the first time since authorities began snapping photographs of
drivers for licenses, state officials have begun selling the images
wholesale, another example of the growing availability of rich troves
of personal information via modern technology. 

In the past several months, South Carolina has released 3.5 million
digital photographs, Florida has started the process of transferring
14 million images in its files and other states have expressed
interest in doing the same. 

The buyer is Image Data LLC, a small New Hampshire company that wants
to build a national database of photos and personal information to
help retailers prevent identity theft -- a fast-growing crime in which
fraud artists use victims' personal information to run up bills in
their names or empty their bank accounts. 

Image Data's computers can flash the photo of person named on a credit
card or a check to a small screen near a cash register when a
transaction begins. Company officials say the service could head off
billions of dollars in fraud by giving clerks an instant, tamper-proof
way to verify the identity of customers. 

The company's desire for the personal data contained in motor vehicle
files is far from novel. Such records are routinely sold by many
states and have become a computerized staple for direct marketers,
information services and others in recent years. 

But by adding photographs into the mix, Image Data has crossed into
new territory, raising on the one hand the possibility of improved
security for consumers and retailers and, on the other, new questions
about personal privacy. 

While it has long been customary or a legal requirement to restrict
access to driver photos to law enforcement authorities, company
officials pledged to handle their new storehouse of digital pictures
carefully. "What we're looking for is security of the entire process,"
said Image Data spokeswoman Lorna Christie. "This is a great example
of how technology can be used to protect citizens and business." 

The nascent service, already operating on a limited basis in South
Carolina, is part of a growing number of surveillance and
identification systems that take advantage of computers, electronic
networks, personal information, video images, fingerprints and other
identifying data, generally in the quest for security. 

Law enforcement authorities, for example, now use computer-assisted
cameras to "read" license plates of cars that have run through red
lights.  Casinos use such cameras to watch for faces of con artists or
card sharps in their digital picture files, and police in Britain are
trying them out in public areas to automatically scan for known
criminal suspects. 

Some automated teller machines now require users to offer a finger for
scanning rather than a bank card to get access. And growing numbers of
banks, including First Union, require some people to provide a
thumbprint before cashing their checks. 

Some critics worry that Image Data's plans will create a sense of
unwanted surveillance for many people. Privacy activists fear that
once photos are released by authorities in digital form, they will be
used for other purposes by private detectives or telemarketers who
want to match a face to other personal information. 

"It contributes to an atmosphere where people feel they are being
watched,"  said Robert Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal. "What
you create is a mug file of law-abiding citizens." 

Consumer advocates complain that drivers in Florida and South Carolina
were not asked permission for their images to be sold, even though
those states had long restricted access to such photos. 

Image Data bought the photographs for about a penny each. Those images
will be cross-referenced to personal information gleaned from public
and private sources. In addition to a name and address, the company's
databases will hold an individual's Social Security number, age, sex,
race and other details from a driver's file, as well as limited
information about each transaction. 

That database will come into play whenever a customer at a
participating retailer attempts to use a credit card or check.
Identifying data will be sent to Image Data computers, which will
respond by sending a photo back to a small screen mounted discreetly
near a cash register. The transaction will proceed only after a clerk
verifies the customer's identity. 

Christie said the new service has already deterred some fraud at
stores in South Carolina, where a pilot program is being used to
confirm the identities of people using checks. The program in Florida
is scheduled to begin later this year. She said Image Data has taken
pains to protect privacy, noting the company employs encryption and
other secure technology to prevent clerks from capturing and
preserving the images. 

Christie said other personal information in the company's database
will not accompany the photographs. In addition, she said, contracts
with the states also prohibit the company from using the data for any
purpose other than fraud prevention. 

Officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia have no plans to sell
driver photographs, and rules in all three jurisdictions restrict who
can see the images. 

Reaction to the idea has been mixed where it has become public.
Florida state Rep. Tom Feeney, a Republican who sponsored the
legislation making the sale of images possible, said the Image Data
service will deter fraud and related crimes. "Once the word gets out
to the criminal element, you'll probably have less wallets ripped off
and purses stolen," Feeney said. "I think nine out of 10 people will
think of that as a positive." 

But officials in New Hampshire and Louisiana firmly rejected initial
efforts by Image Data to acquire state data two years ago after
expressing privacy concerns and complaining that photos taken for one
purpose should not be used for another. 

"The New Hampshire legislators said no to what we considered an
unacceptable invasion of people's privacy," said state Rep. Neal Kurk,
a Republican who said the opposition to True ID was bipartisan. "This
is one step beyond information. It is the essence of who I am." 

A Columbia, S.C., retailer, Bill Yancey, manager of the Belk
Department Store, described identity fraud as "an ongoing problem" and
said True ID "sounds like it has some merit" for helping. But he
worries that customers, especially those loyal to the store, might be
put off. His store is not among those testing the service. Image Data
declined to provide names of retailers that are. 

"All of the sudden seeing your photo flashing up there, as though you
did something wrong? . . . I could see a negative reaction," Yancey
said.  "Although the idea has some merit for a retailer, I'm not sure
it would go over." 

The Florida Retail Federation also is keeping an open mind about the
service.  But spokeswoman Lori Elliott said some members worry it may
be too expensive. Leaders of the group have just begun a campaign
promoting the use of thumbprints on checks to help ward off fraud. 

Others said few people in Florida and South Carolina have had a chance
to object. In South Carolina, state officials approved the sale with
little fanfare.  In Florida, which previously had sharply restricted
the use of driver photographs, legislation enabling the sale was
approved after little debate. 

Sandy Lambert, the director of Florida's division of driver licenses,
said she didn't know about the change until after it was already
approved. "It all happened right at the end of the session," Lambert

Image Data's Christie acknowledged that neither the company nor the
states have told drivers how their photographs would be collected and
used. But she and state officials noted the arrangement is perfectly
legal, even under the new federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act,
which took effect last year. 

That law, which has come under fire in federal courts as possibly
unconstitutional, imposed new restrictions on the use of state driver
records.  Exemptions include anti-fraud initiatives and do not require
the states to allow drivers to opt out. 

Christie said concerned drivers can call the company and request that
their photographs not be circulated to stores in the new network. 

That's not good enough for Robert Biggerstaff of South Carolina. He's
angry that no one asked if his driver's photograph could be used.
Biggerstaff, a computer specialist and engineer, said such systems are
often vulnerable to hackers. He believes it would take relatively
little for someone to tamper with the system and begin downloading
photographs at will. "If it shows up on a screen, I can capture it,"
he said. "Yes, there are definitely good things that could come out of
[the service]. But why don't we do it with consent?  Why don't we have
a choice?" 

Jim Hatchell, president of the South Carolina Merchants Association,
saw a demonstration of the service and believes it will catch on in
the state.  "It's very impressive," he said, adding the screen showing
the photographs is about the size of a business card. 

As for privacy concerns, he doesn't think most people will care. 
"There'll be a few letters to the editor. There'll be a few calls to
the radio shows, talking about Big Brother and all that," he said. "I
don't think it will be a problem." 

            Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company