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EDITORIAL: In the brave new world of biometrics, Illinois should be looking out for you

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection facial recognition device is ready to scan another passenger at a United Airlines gate, Wednesday, July 12, 2017, at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Americans were stunned to learn this week just how much detail of their private lives has been vacuumed up by big online databases, to be bought and sold by companies most of us have never even heard of.

We could almost hear the steely voice: “We have a complete dossier on you.”

But if the congressional hearing on Facebook was an eye-opener, get ready for the next wave of even more sophisticated snooping into every corner of your life. Companies are scrambling to use something called “biometrics” — such as digital facial recognition, iris and retinal scans, fingerprints and thumbprint scanners — to do an even more intimate job of keeping tabs on who you are, where you go and what you think.


The potential for abuse is alarming. Databases built using biometrics could stalk you and instantly tell the world when you go to a counseling center or a political rally or look for another job. The databases could be used to deny you access to places of business or prevent you from seeing ads and information available to others.

They could be used to gerrymander you into a legislative district where your vote won’t much count. They have already been used to keep tabs on when people go to church.

The very notion of quiet anonymity as you walk down a street or shop in a store could be lost.

Fortunately, Illinois has led the way in protecting Americans against biometric data abuse. The rest of the nation would be wise to catch up. But Illinois’ safeguards are under assault in Springfield by lobbyists pushing to weaken the law.

Forget that. This is no time to further erode our privacy. Let’s send the lobbyists packing.

The 2008 Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act wasn’t written by Luddites, as its opponents imply. It doesn’t bar the use of biometrics. It simply establishes a handful of commonsense rules to put your privacy ahead of somebody else’s profits.

The Illinois law says that companies can’t gather and keep biometric records without prior notification and written permission. It requires them to get rid of the records when they no longer need them. And it bars them from selling the information willy-nilly and turning it loose on the internet, where bad actors can scoop it up.

That sticks in the craw of companies that want to monetize all that information no matter what the cost to privacy. Lobbyists took aim at the law in past years, and they’re pushing harder than ever this year.

IL State Representative of the 11th District Ann Williams. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Opponents of the law contend that it is anti-business because it has led to companies being sued. But there’s an easy way to avoid a lawsuit — respect the law. Opponents of the law also say it stifles innovation and denies people the convenience of having their identities established more quickly through biometrics.

Biometrics, the law’s critics say, can serve a useful purpose by deterring shoplifters and safeguard public gatherings at stadiums and elsewhere.

Talk about hogwash. As state Rep. Anne Williams, D-Chicago, says, the only real bone of contention here is your right to privacy. The Illinois law allows companies to use biometrics as long as that privacy is respected.

Companies in Illinois are using facial recognition in such unexpected places as fast-food kiosks and to make it easier for people to check in at health clubs. Without the law, those companies could resell that kind of biometric information — such as what you ate and where you worked out — to shadowy vendors who could store it indefinitely and resell it at will.

Improvements in biometric technology are galloping ahead of public perception. Facial recognition technology is making it possible to identify you from greater and greater distances. Soon, it will be possible to make iris scans from a distance, too.

When the Illinois Legislature passed a strong bill regulating the use of biometric data, it was looking out for you. If the Legislature weakens the law now, it’s looking out only for those who want to look at you.

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