Fighting the Fingerprints
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
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.
The housewife and online activist (who was Pat
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
"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
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