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Florida has sold license photos

That's right. The state got a penny from a company in New Hampshire for your driver's license picture.

By KRIS HUNDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 1999


If you have a Florida driver's license, the state has sold your photo for a penny to a New Hampshire company.

Image Data LLC of Nashua, N.H., bought the 14-million pictures for a data base that it wants to sell to retailers eager to prevent fraud. But its system has not been proven to be either secure or economically viable for retailers.

Driver's license information, such as addresses, has been considered public record and available, for a fee, to anybody from the local newspaper to a nosy neighbor. But previously, only Florida law enforcement personnel had access to the photos.

That changed last spring when the Legislature approved a bill that allows the photos to be sold for fraud prevention uses, raising serious concerns among privacy advocates about the vast amount of personal information now available through computers.

Though proponents promise the images will be used only to catch crooks, Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal, said it instead creates a mugshot file of all law-abiding citizens.

"Whenever the basic principle of privacy is violated it's a bad idea," said Smith, who is based in Providence, R.I. "Information gathered for one purpose shouldn't be used for another."

Lorna Christie, spokeswoman for Image Data, said the company's contract with Florida strictly limits use of the photos to prevent fraud.

"We're not a marketing company, and there will absolutely be no secondary uses of these photos," Christie said. Individuals can also opt out of the program by requesting to have their photo deleted from Image Data's file.

Image Data's identity verification system was tested last summer in South Carolina, which was the first state to approve the sale of driver's license photos. Colorado recently agreed to join the program. Both Louisiana and Image Data's home state of New Hampshire rejected the company's request to sell license photos two years ago.

Under Image Data's system, when a customer makes a purchase by check and produces a driver's license, the cashier swipes the driver's license into Image Data's system. Within seconds, Image Data transmits the photo on file for that license. No other information about the person is given.

The image, which appears on a screen about the size of a postage stamp, is only shown for eight seconds, then it disappears. The cashier then decides if the image matches the person at the register and either accepts or rejects the check.

"There's no way the cashier could download the image," said Christie, who said no price has yet been set for the service. "The only thing transmitted is the image, so why bother? That's not a building block for building an identity."

Not true, said Winn Schwartau, an expert on computer security issues who thinks hackers and criminals will have a field day with Image Data's system.

"Nobody's secure," said Schwartau, who runs a Website (www.infowar.com) on security and privacy issues from his Largo home. "When you consider what's already available online -- Social Security numbers, addresses, buying habits, then you add the photo, you've given the criminal element the final tool they need to commit any crime they want in someone else's name."

Rep. Tom Feeney, the Republican from Oviedo who sponsored the amendment allowing sale of the photos, said he was assured by state law enforcement that Image Data's system was secure and he doubts that crooks would have much use for a photo, even if they could access it.

"Maybe there are some possible bad purposes I haven't con-ceived of, but then, some crooks are brighter than me," Feeney said.

The purpose of his amendment, which was passed the day before the Florida Legislature concluded its session last spring, was to help retailers avoid costly check and credit card fraud.

"And if word about it gets out to the criminal class, maybe a few less wallets and purses will be stolen," said Feeney, who was Gov. Jeb Bush's running mate during Bush's first gubernatorial campaign in 1994.

But some Florida retailers question the value of Image Data's system, which could be available in the state by mid-summer. Lori Elliott, spokeswoman for Florida Retail Federation, said her group's members support efforts to deter fraud. But she notes that many retailers already pay a third party for a check verification and guarantee service, which guarantees a check will be paid, even if it turns out to be worthless.

"So why would a retailer want to pay more for an image if the check is already guaranteed?" Elliott said.

Conrad Szymanski, president of Beall's Department Stores in Bradenton, said he can see the value of Image Data's system if it worked with credit cards.

"It's a delicate issue," he said. "It could be seen as an invasion of privacy, but it serves a measurable consumer benefit by making it hard for people to steal your credit cards, run up your charge accounts and destroy your credit."

But Szymanski doubts his chain will have much use for Image Data's initial system, which will only work for check transactions.

"It would be hard for me to buy such a service based on check losses alone," Szymanski said. "It would have to work with credit cards as well or it would not fly economically."

Image Data's spokeswoman said the system eventually will be expanded to handle credit-card transactions. She points out that the company was founded two years ago when Bob Houvener, now Image Data's president, had his own credit cards stolen and run up with fraudulent charges.

"This company has been built from a victim's perspective," Christie said. "We worked to achieve a balance between protecting the consumer's identity and giving retailers an effective loss prevention product. And we used a technology that protects both consumers and businesses."

Schwartau, the security consultant, isn't buying that argument.

He said Image Data's plan is "full of holes" and is destined to be replaced within a few years by systems that will allow customers to prove their identity through fingerprint identification.

"Then unless you take my thumb, you can't steal my identity," he said.

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