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    A Times Editorial

    Licensed drivers at risk

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 23, 2000


    Three and a half million dollars can buy quite a bit of sophisticated law enforcement equipment, but Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice plans to use that amount for technology that would make every Floridian who drives a car a potential suspect.

    With the help of legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. C. W. Bill Young, R-Largo, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rice has been awarded a federal grant to purchase computer software that can ostensibly digitally match faces. Rice says the new technology will more efficiently uncover the identity of suspects from surveillance photos and composite drawings. While this might sound like a reasonable approach to crime-fighting, his plan is to include not only mug shots from police agencies around the state but also the state's bank of driver's license photos.

    That means every licensed driver in the state will soon become part of a massive mug book -- a kind of digital lineup -- raising the prospect that innocent people could be dragged into the criminal justice system because they happen to resemble a perpetrator.

    Rice defends the system by comparing it to DNA testing and fingerprint matching. But it's not the same thing at all. Leaving aside the fact that digital lineups are a relatively new technology without the track record of either DNA or fingerprint matching, the state doesn't collect the DNA or fingerprints of every adult in the state, the way it nearly does with driver's license photos. When police attempt to match a suspect's DNA through a computer database, only people who have committed serious crimes in the past -- who have given the state a reason to collect their DNA -- are subject to the search.

    Haven't Florida officials learned anything after the debacle a couple of years ago when the state contracted to sell Floridians' driver's license photos to a private security firm? The public was so outraged by the invasion of privacy that Gov. Jeb Bush stopped the sale and canceled the contract. But this new use for driver's license photos is no better. It's a form of function-creep, where the government collects information for a stated purpose but then uses it in other ways. When someone agrees to have their picture taken for a driver's license, they haven't given their consent, implicit or otherwise, to being part of a statewide criminal suspect file.

    Federal law now protects driver's license information from distribution without the motorist's consent, but there is an exemption for law enforcement. Maybe that exemption should be tightened. Our driver's license photos are not police mug shots.

    Recent coverage

    All drivers may appear in digital lineups (December 22, 2000)

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