DPS Will Stop Collecting Fingerprints of Driver's License Applicants

If you went to a Texas Department of Public Safety office after January 2014 to apply for a driver's license or get a state-issued ID card, more than likely your full set of fingerprints is now locked away in some state database.

The little-known, unannounced policy -- up until last year, DPS only gathered a single thumbprint from applicants -- was supposedly part of the state's new and revamped 21st-century security plan. When it finally became public, amid heightened sensitivity to government snooping (and near-weekly revelations about how the government is, well, snooping on us), the new practice of indiscriminate fingerprint-gathering made privacy advocates, and some state lawmakers, very uneasy.

Here's why. For the first time ever, DPS was collecting fingerprints of Texans who hadn't been suspected of a crime. One DPS employee who quit because of the practice told the Dallas Morning News (which first stumbled across the new program a full six months after DPS had implemented it) that all fingerprints gathered by the agency were being run through the state's criminal database. The employee said that even if someone was not a suspected criminal, their fingerprints were then stored in a statewide fingerprint database anyway.

On late Friday afternoon, DPS sent out a bare-bones statement announcing it would stop fingerprinting driver's license and ID applicants, and instead go back to the single-thumbprint *fingerprint standard.

State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg and State Sen. Van Taylor, who say they'd met several times with DPS Director Steven McCraw and DPS' general counsel in an effort to stop the practice, have argued that McCraw had no legislative authority to take complete sets of fingerprints from people who hadn't been suspected of a crime.

McCraw "didn't give up that easy," Laubenberg told the DMN. "It's taken several months. He fought it, but we were pretty insistent. He realized there's a whole different dynamic in the state legislature now."

Freshman GOP State Rep. Tony Tinderholt has already filed a bill that would explicitly bar DPS from fingerprinting license and ID applicants in the future; to justify the program, DPS had used a 2005 law that allows the agency to take "an applicant's thumbprints or fingerprints," though some lawmakers have said a full-fingerprinting program was not their intent. The bill would also order DPS to delete all fingerprints taken in the first year of its program.

"Unless you have committed a crime or suspected of committing a crime there is no reason for a government agency to have a database of your fingerprints," Tinderholt said when announcing the bill.

-- *Correction 12:30 p.m.: DPS says it will now be gathering "index fingerprints, not thumbprints."

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