Protect Illinois law that protects our identities

Opponents are lining up against Illinois’ pioneering Biometric Privacy and Information Act, which protects consumers against misuse of digitally stored identifiers such as thumbprints, retinas, irises and faces.

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A U.S. Customs and Border Protection facial recognition device is ready to scan a passenger in 2017, at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Privacy advocates are concerned about the collection and potential sale of biometric information.

David J. Philip/AP

There’s talk in Springfield that law firms and lobbyists are gearing up to repeal Illinois’ pioneering 2008 Biometric Information Privacy Act or seriously curtail it.

That would be a mistake, and legislators should hold firm. Lawmakers in other states should support Illinois by passing their own versions of BIPA, as some states have done. It is a critically important law.

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Biometric information includes such identifiers as thumbprints, retinas, irises and faces, stored digitally. It can’t be changed once it is for sale on the dark web or leaked through data breaches. Biometric information can be profitable to companies when they sell it but in the wrong hands, it can be the ultimate identity theft.

BIPA is designed to protect Illinoisans as it gets ever easier for companies or brokers to grab our personal biometric information and surreptitiously market it for their own profit.

Widespread trafficking of biometric information could overshadow today’s privacy challenges. People could be tracked anywhere by government, political foes or stalkers. Unlike credit card numbers that can be changed when they are stolen, biometric information is linked to a particular individual forever.

BIPA is unfairly criticized as an impediment to useful new technology. But it isn’t. It doesn’t say companies can’t collect and use that information by, for example, using thumbprints of people who punch in at work or check in at medical facilities. It just says entities that collect biometric information have to notify people they are collecting it, tell them how it will be used and obtain their approval. It is a small ask when you consider biometrics are very sensitive information none of us can change.

BIPA opponents tend to say the law hurts small businesses. But it is the giant companies that stand to benefit most from unfettered access to biometric data.

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Collecting biometric information can be helpful when it allows people to establish their identity, helps police solve crimes or is put to other beneficial uses. What’s not a good idea is to collect biometric information secretly in the background and sell it to brokers with scurrilous intent.

Many people in other states would love to have Illinois’ law, but they haven’t been able to enact such legislation because of stiff opposition by companies that want to use biometrics.

Last year, a federal biometric information privacy law similar to BIPA was introduced but it has gone nowhere.

It’s up to states to protect people’s privacy. BIPA is one way to do that.

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