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States’ Digital License Plans Worry Privacy Experts With BC-Digital Licenses-Box

November 21, 1993

BOSTON (AP) _ Fourteen states and two Canadian provinces are planning to use digitized photographs of drivers on licenses, adding people’s faces to their already- vast computer files.

Once a photo is scanned into a computer to be stored digitally, the image can easily be altered, matched with similar images or even transmitted around the world. Privacy experts worry that the information will be misused by people with bad intentions or by overzealous police.

″Expecting the direct marketing industry not to exploit these pictures is like trying to roll a lamb chop past a wolf,″ said Evan Hendricks, editor of the Washington-based Privacy Times newsletter.

Hendricks said mailing list companies could search photo files to find people who need toupees or dental work.

″They could write, ’We checked out your picture and you were having a bad hair day,‴ he said.

But Richard Barton, senior vice president for government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association Inc., said, ″I can’t think of any direct- marketing use″ for the photos.

The collection of the pictures in computer files adds a new twist to the debate over access to state motor vehicle department computer records.

Some argue that criminals and others already have used such information to stalk, harass or initiate unsolicited contact with people.

The photos are covered under legislation in Congress that would block the release of personal information from state motor vehicle records without a person’s approval, according to a staff member for the measure’s sponsor, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Storing the 14 million pictures of California’s drivers makes it easier to replace or renew licenses, said Gary Nishite, technology chief in California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, which pioneered the high-tech licenses.

Nishite said he envisions the day a driver with a good record could move from Massachusetts, which plans its own $7.4 million system, to California and have a picture transmitted through phone lines to California where it would be placed on a new license.

Others see the new technology in less rosy terms.

″It would be the first time the government would have a photo file of virtually every citizen. Once that file is established, bureaucrats can find all sorts of uses for it,″ said Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Providence, R.I.-based Privacy Journal.

The FBI already has its sights on the pictures, said Dave Nemecek, a deputy assistant director in charge of information systems.

The agency is upgrading a national system that collects and puts on-line information such as wanted-criminal and missing-persons lists. The new system is designed to collect and transmit images - and digital driver’s licenses from the states are a ″great source,″ he said.

″It will be a real boon for law enforcement,″ he said.

But the collection of photos could easily be misused by overzealous law enforcement officials, said Andrew Good, a defense attorney on the board of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

″People have an instinctive sense that this information can be abused. What they’re trying to do is an end-run around people’s instincts for privacy,″ Good said.

For example, courts have frowned on police roundups of all young black men near a crime scene - but police could use the computer to scan the pictures of every driver living in the area.

″It’s a handy way to get people to do what they otherwise wouldn’t. Most people wouldn’t willingly put their fingerspints on file with police,″ Good argued.

Police also might be more inclined to show photos of innocent people to witnesses trying to identify suspected criminals, Good said.

″Rather than showing an array of mug shots ... now you’re going to sit in front of a computer terminal and show them eight jillion people with the potential for a very serious misidentification problem,″ Good said.

And what if someone wanted to change an image - add a scar or subtract a birthmark, perhaps?

″Those images can be manipulated. They can be changed,″ warned John Roberts, executive director of the ACLU in Massachusetts.

Smith, the privacy activist, called for a ″go-slow″ approach.

″I think it’s probably too early to tell the implications, which means it really ought to be viewed with great caution,″ he said.

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