Art by Bob AulA day after the California Legislature voted to stop the DMV from selling driver's license photographs to private companies, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) announced that it had obtained new evidence that a firm called Image Data had worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Secret Service to develop a national database of photos to combat credit fraud.
Information on the Secret Service's involvement with the company first surfaced in February, when The Washington Post reported that the government had provided Image Data (www.imagedatallc.com) with $1.5 million in funding and technical assistance—reportedly in hopes that the technology could ultimately be used to combat terrorism and illegal immigration.
"The TrueID technology has widespread potential to reduce crime in the credit and checking fields, in airports to reduce the chances of terrorism, and in immigration and naturalization to verify proper identity," the Post quoted eight members of Congress saying in a 1997 letter.
Needless to say, these starry-eyed proposals went far beyond the company's claims that the database would only be used to reduce credit fraud. It's also needless to say that state officials—already leery about selling the company millions of private citizens' photos—went apeshit. In South Carolina, where the Nashua, New Hampshire-based Image Data had already purchased 3.5 million photos, the state's attorney general began investigating whether he could file perjury charges against company president Bob Houvener for failing to mention the Secret Service connection. Florida and Colorado, which had both made agreements with Image Data, canceled them; Colorado's Legislature also outlawed the sale of driver's license photographs. And people from all parts of the political spectrum united in their outcry against the perceived invasion of privacy.
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The backlash appeared to catch Image Data by surprise. Forced onto the defensive, company officials protested that fears of Big Brother-style misuse of its database were preposterous and that it would not sell the information it collected to government agencies or other companies.
Nonetheless, six days after the Post broke the story, state Assemblyman Mike Briggs (R-Fresno) introduced Assembly Bill 771, the DMV Confidentiality bill; on Sept. 8, the state Assembly voted 75-zip and the state Senate voted 40-0 to pass the bill. AB 771 now sits on the governor's desk, awaiting Gray Davis' signature.
Briggs staffer Rock Zierman said the bill was prompted by the Image Data controversy and pointed out that California's DMV had experimented with selling drivers' photos in the past.
"Back in 1994, the DMV made a deal with Citibank, where Citibank would tell them which of their customers had granted permission to purchase their photos," he said. "The DMV didn't require confirmation from the drivers or signatures or anything—they just took Citibank's word for it. I think they sold them about 133,000 images."
But if Davis signs the bill, no further sales would be permitted. And that may be a better thing than anyone knew; on Sept. 9, EPIC announced it had obtained government documents through the Freedom of Information Act that indicated the Secret Service's role in the project had been greater than either the agency or Image Data had suggested in the past.
"Before, Image Data had very quietly acknowledged they were involved with the Secret Service on this project, but whenever they were pressed, they tried to diminish the Secret Service's role in funding and developing the project," said EPIC's Andrew Shen. "I have a stack of documents 3 inches tall: monthly reports to the Secret Service, Image Data coming to D.C. and showing them how everything worked, Secret Service agents going to visit the company. . . . They were obviously working together very closely in this. Why the Secret Service is so heavily invested in this project, we can only imagine. But we didn't find any sort of evil Big Brother purpose in [the documents]." Some of the documents are available for public viewing on the organization's Web site (www.epic.org).
The Secret Service and Image Data have denied anew that there was anything sinister in their cooperation on the identification database project. Special agent Chaun Yount told the Newsbytes News Network (www.newsbytes.com) that the project was designed solely to be used by merchants to verify customers' identity at the point of purchase, adding that the Secret Service never intended to use the database.
Image Data spokeswoman Lorna Christie pointed out that since the controversy broke, the company has completely retooled its system; now, instead of purchasing information from states, the consumer's photograph is scanned into their database at the point of purchase, with the consumer's knowledge and consent.
"Over the past couple of months, we've been doing a lot of consumer research—we've spoken with focus groups, business leaders and privacy advocates," she said. "We think we've come up with a solution that balances the responsible use of information to protect consumers and businesses from the problem of identity fraud." She added that the Secret Service's involvement with the company ended when their South Carolina pilot program did.
Christie sounded exasperated with the barrage of controversy and with EPIC's continuing focus on the Secret Service's role in her company's project. But let's face it: Americans have long nurtured a streak of suspicion toward our government, even those of us not clad in fatigues and clutching militia handbooks—a paranoia the Image Data plan simply stoked.
What's odd is that this perceived invasion of privacy provoked such a roar of protest while other, more egregious violations pass unnoticed: corporations collect information on us and charge us a fee to look at it; telephone companies track our phone calls and sell the information to marketers; the FBI plots to gain ever-greater access to our e-mail messages. But sell a driver's license photo to a small New Hampshire company and the country goes berserk. Throw the Secret Service into the mix, and you have a situation ripe for conspiracy theories.
Shen suggested that part of the reason for the uproar in this case is the feeling of not having a choice in the matter. "The problem with Image Data's purchase of DMV photos is that if I'm living in South Carolina, I have no choice of whether to give the DMV my photo," he said. "In this day and age, you need a driver's license for ID if nothing else. The fact that the DMV can then do anything they want with that photo is outrageous. I think California is doing a great thing [by banning their sale]—the common-sense thing."
Shen added that he thought Image Data's secretiveness hurt the project from the beginning and hopes that perhaps the new information EPIC has made public will cause them to rethink their position.
"When they started purchasing photos, they tried to do it pretty quietly, so that when the news came out later, they faced the backlash of that," he said. "This is another point that Image Data was trying to quiet down. When they try to hide it from the public, of course the public is outraged again. We hope that Image Data becomes fully aware that they should be pretty forthcoming with the public in exactly what they're doing."
Be forthcoming to Wyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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