Illinois will use facial-recognition technology to create new driver’s licenses, raising privacy concerns

Illinois’ new program to create driver’s licenses and state ID cards with enhanced security features has generated concerns over the possibility of identity theft and government tracking of private citizens.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White announced May 17 that Illinois will begin creating driver’s licenses with enhanced security features, which White said will protect Illinoisans from identity theft. These changes are also required for Illinois to comply with the federal Real ID Act by 2018.

By the end of July 2016, every Illinoisan who applies for or renews a driver’s license or state ID will have his or her photograph processed at a Springfield site, which will use facial-recognition technology to compare the photograph to millions of others in a central digital database. The applicant will receive a paper license or ID from his or her local driver services facility immediately and a permanent card with laser technology embedded in it about two weeks later, according to the secretary of state.

Under the new system, in addition to the use of facial-recognition technology to screen photos for fraud before issuing licenses, the cards themselves will come with secure features, Driver Services Department Director Michael Mayer told the Chicago Tribune. As a result, the new licenses and ID cards will be harder to counterfeit. The added costs of the new system are expected to total $8 million annually; the secretary of state’s office plans to tap a special license-upgrade fund to cover the additional expenditures.

These measures are designed to put Illinois in compliance with the federal REAL ID Act, which Congress passed in 2005 based on recommendations by the 9/11 Commission. By Jan. 22, 2018, air travelers from states that do not issue IDs that comply with the REAL ID Act and that have not received compliance deadline extensions from the Department of Homeland Security, will have to present other approved documents, such as passports, to board planes. Illinois is one of 27 states that do not yet fully comply with the REAL ID Act.

Though proponents of Illinois’ new driver’s license and ID cards tout the fraud-prevention and enhanced security features of the system, critics have voiced concerns about information security and privacy. American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois Communications Director Ed Yohnka told the Chicago Tribune he thinks the system could actually make identity theft more likely and worries about establishing a route to government surveillance.

“Once you have this national database, the only natural thing to do next is to … use it to track people,” Yohnka said. “Then you are just creating a huge surveillance system, and that’s the real danger.”

Technological innovation such as facial-recognition software has introduced the possibility of catching terrorists before they board planes, enter government buildings, or access military bases. And such technology could allow authorities to detect attempted identity theft before a thief actually obtains a false driver’s license or ID card. But once the government – state or federal – has private citizens’ unique facial details, names and addresses in a central database, and technologically enhanced cards to pair the digital information with the card-bearers, it will be difficult for citizens to control who sees the information and how it is used.

In Illinois, at the very least, strict controls must be placed on state workers’ and law enforcement’s access to the new driver’s license database, as well as how and under what circumstances officials can use the information contained in it. It is essential to protect Illinoisans’ privacy now; as technology advances, these issues will arise more and more frequently.

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