Immigrant rights groups in Los Angeles are reporting that LAPD officers used handheld devices to scan the fingerprints of day laborers on the street corners. The incident, they say, raises serious concerns over privacy rights.
"These day laborers are not suspected of any criminal activity that we know of," said Jennifer Lynch, author of a new report released Wednesday by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Immigration Policy Center that describes the episode.
"While most of us would be really suspect if a police officer randomly asked us to submit to a fingerprint scan on the street," said Lynch, "when you feel like you have little voice in society and you lack power to challenge authority, I think harassment like this is a big issue."
"The immigrant community is [already] scared of the police," said Tony Bernade, a senior organizer with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), who received the complaints from day laborers and street vendors last year.
CHIRLA and the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) say they haven't received similar complaints since, but add that it brings up larger questions of how and when these devices are used.
The 'Blue Check' Scanner
Sgt. Rudy Lopez of the LAPD said he doesn't have any record of the incident in question, but says officers routinely use the portable fingerprint scanner, called a "Blue Check," in the field. Since the technology was introduced in 2008, he said, officers have used it with more frequency.
Police officers are trained to use the device under three circumstances: when they have reasonable suspicion to detain someone; when they have probable cause to make an arrest; or in a "consensual encounter, with the permission of the person that they're stopping," said Lopez.
But immigrant advocacy groups claim that under these scenarios vulnerable populations such as day laborers may feel unable to say no.
"There's a lot of gray area as to when a person feels they can and cannot say no," agreed Lopez. "If an officer is overbearing, the way he's talking to them, if he positions his car in a certain way, that all goes into the picture of if it's consensual or not."
The Blue Check system is connected to an internal computer system in the officers' cars that matches the fingerprints to a criminal database. It takes two minutes to determine if there is a positive hit.
"Things that once seemed like science fiction – facial recognition photographs, palm and iris prints – are being shared through FBI and DHS [Department of Homeland Security] databases," said Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to defending people's rights in the digital world.
Biometrics – the unique markers that identify an individual – can include anything from physical biometrics (like fingerprints, facial recognition, iris scans, voice recognition, and DNA) to behavioral biometrics (like their signature, the patterns of their keystrokes on a computer, or even the way a person walks).
The federal government and all 50 states already collect fingerprints and DNA from almost anyone who comes into contact with the criminal justice system. In the past, fingerprints were stored as images. Today, Lynch said, the fingerprint data is turned into an algorithm. Checking two fingerprints against each other is now a mathematical calculation instead of a visual check; the same is true for a cheek swab, the most common form of collecting DNA.
More states are collecting other forms of biometrics as well, like facial recognition photographs and palm and iris prints. They share this data with the federal government through FBI and DHS databases. The government, in turn, shares the data across agencies through refugee and asylum programs, counter terrorism programs, and Secure Communities. The latter requires police to submit the fingerprints of anyone they arrest to federal immigration authorities.
The Next Frontier
DNA evidence is increasingly being collected from people who have no contact with the criminal justice system. New Department of Justice regulations require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to collect DNA from almost any non-U.S. person they detain. DHS estimates that the program could affect about 1 million people a year.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Lynch said, "We learned that the program could have been broader than anything we would have suspected because ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and DHS may be collecting DNA from juveniles as young as 14 and are considering collecting DNA from kids even younger than that."
"The expansion of DNA collection is a real issue," she said, "because DNA has the potential to reveal so much information about you – everything from who you are to your potential for disease to behavioral characteristics and possibly even sexual orientation."
It also reveals who you're related to, Lynch said, so even if your own DNA isn't in the database, you could be identified through a family member who is in the database.
The next frontier for biometrics could be a government-issued ID card for all U.S. workers that contains digitally encoded biometric information. Sometimes called a "hardened Social Security card," the biometric ID has been proposed by some members of Congress as a solution to employment verification of authorized workers.
Supporters argue the cards would be harder to counterfeit, though Wayne State University law professor Jonathan Weinberg says the costs outweigh the benefits.
With a price tag of some $40 billion to implement, plus another $3 billion in ongoing annual expenditures, Weinberg found in a report on the proposed cards that other issues -- including bad data and the continued potential for identity theft – make the plan unfeasible.
In addition, such cards would likely hurt the most vulnerable: the poor, sick, unemployed, homeless, low-income workers. And, he adds, it would "almost certainly be used for a broader range of purposes."
For Bernade of CHIRLA, the signs are troubling.
"They are saving and keeping the data," said Bernade. "Nobody knows how it's going to be used."