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Fighting the Fingerprints

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by Chris Stamper  July 24, 1997

     Right now, five states fingerprint their residents when they go to get their driver's licenses. The prints are stored digitally and are saved with the person's picture, signature and vital statistics. A database of fingerprints of every driver in the state can be a great way to stop fraud -- or be used by Big Brother to snoop into our business.

     This month Alabama governor Bob James squelched his state's plan to make a database of prints -- after an online campaign complained it was a violation of people's privacy.

    It all started when Alabama bought equipment for their new generation of driver's licenses. The state Department of Public Safety realized they now had the ability to catalog fingerprints and proposed adding them as identifying marks. "It was intended to prevent fraud," said Roy Smith, public information officer at the Alabama DPS.

     Alabama's DPS particularly wanted to stop teenagers from getting bogus licenses. "All you have to do is walk in with somebody's birth certificate and get a driver's license with that person's name," he said. "You can do that in any state."

     They began testing the fingerprints on a voluntary basis at a few sites. But before the DPS could start taking widespread pictures of fingers, the plan needed the state legislature's approval. Plus, Alabama law required a time for public comment on the proposed law. That's where Linda Muller came in.
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     The housewife and online activist (who was Pat Buchanan's campaign webmaster) was outraged over the proposal and decided to lobby on the Net. She put up a web page called Fight The Fingerprint, then sent posts to every conservative mailing list she could find. Muller encouraged people to start firing off faxes, phone calls and e-mails.

     "I spammed like you wouldn't believe," she told us. "But I never received one negative letter back to me."

     Muller's deluge eventually reached Gov. James himself. David Azbell, the governor's deputy press secretary, said the material on Fight The Fingerprint was instrumental in the decision to abort the database.

     "Once the governor got hold of the idea off the web site, he realized it was more than something the DPS wanted as a safety measure," Azbell said. "This was an intrusion into people's lives. We are a conservative administration. We believe in less government -- and that means not fingerprinting the citizens of Alabama."

     (When the DPS stopped fingerprinting on July 7, about 500 Alabamans had volunteered their prints. The DPS says it destroyed the records)

     Opposition to what has been dubbed "finger imaging technology" in Alabama cut across a broad span of the political spectrum. Muller's web site lists groups ranging from the Christian Coalition to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the Libertarian Party. "At least they can't call us right-wing wackos," she joked. She says she plans to keep up her fight for privacy with opposition to Social Security number and deadbeat-dad databases.

     The ACLU, which also opposes fingerprinting, prepared to fight the Alabama regulation, but never took action because the plan died before it was voted on in the state legislature. However, it is fighting a similar law on the books in neighboring Georgia. (California, Colorado, Hawaii and Texas also fingerprint.) The ACLU says there's a bigger agenda behind fingerprinting than public safety.

     "States are being encouraged by the federal government to issue a tamper-proof ID," said Teresa Nelson, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. "Since the national ID card didn't pass, there have been many attempts to get something in through the back door."

     Roy Smith, the Alabama DPS spokesman, defended the failed fingerprinting plan, saying it was intended to protect people. "After all, babies are footprinted when they're born to make sure nobody swaps [them]."
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