Texas Contracts for Thumbprint License Technology

Nov. 3--AUSTIN -- As part of a plan unveiled Wednesday to boost Texas security, the state is looking to incorporate thumbprints in drivers' licenses and will add facial-recognition technology to detect fraudulent-license applicants.

"The bad guys have the technology to create these false IDs. Why can't law enforcement have the technology to prevent it?" said state Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, author of a law approved this year paving the way for the facial-recognition technology.

The technology is meant to catch people trying to get more than one license or using a stolen identity.

Corte's measure, House Bill 2337, drew opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which raised alarms about possible government use of fingerprint and photo identification information in an improper "big brother" role. Backers disagreed.

The driver's license provision is just part of the Texas Homeland Security Strategic Plan 2005-2010 released by Gov. Rick Perry.

Among other highlights, the plan envisions building a statewide intelligence capability that includes an around-the-clock Texas Fusion Center to watch for possible hazards and consolidate and analyze information.

It also looks to beef up border law enforcement, as announced earlier by Perry, and speed up "radio interoperability" to ensure that agencies responding to a crisis on the border can communicate and act quickly.

But driver's license changes likely will attract the attention of millions of Texans called upon daily to pull out the cards when making transactions. The changes are meant not only to stall terrorists but stem identity theft.

The Texas Department of Public Safety has awarded a contract to Oregon-based Digimarc Corp. to design and make a license with facial and thumbprint verification. The five-year contract is valued at nearly $30 million, according to the company.

"We are two weeks into the re-engineering process to make the most secure driver's license document possible," DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange said. "So many people are relying on drivers' licenses and identification cards to be the primary identification for a person."

DPS has been authorized to obtain fingerprints since 1967, and the process has been electronic since 1999, Mange said. But she said while people have been identified in a number of cases using prints on file, those made with old technology are sometimes not good quality and don't allow a comparison.

Mange said decisions still are being made on electronically embedding thumbprints in licenses.

"Everything is at least a couple of years away," she said.

Steve McCraw, director of the governor's homeland security office, said federal approval will be needed to allow comparison of DPS-stored prints to the federal Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification system to identify felons and those identified as terrorists, as proposed in the plan.

Embedding thumbprints in licenses might be useful, for example, in connection with airport security, McCraw said.

Scott Henson, director of the police accountability project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said his group fought Corte's measure in part because it did away with a requirement for warrants before agencies obtain DPS-held thumbprints and that warrants also wouldn't be needed for a facial-recognition database. He said judicial oversight is an important safeguard.

Mange said warrants haven't been required for photos. She said the reasoning behind doing away with the requirement for prints was "anything that facilitates police investigations and makes it more efficient for them to get their work done is something we would support."

She said law officers could get the information only for law-enforcement purposes and would either have to sign a memorandum of understanding or go through other steps to ensure the information's proper use.