Our Personal Privacy is Under Assault

Illinois’ biometric privacy protections are top in the nation, but we’re going to have to fight to keep it that way. Our biometric information includes fingerprints, voiceprints, face and iris scans. We're not just talking about information that discloses our location or are opinions, we're talking about unique and unchangeable personal information, captured from our biological essence.

Current data privacy protections enjoyed by Illinoisans are now under assault as corporate interests make another attempt to weaken the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA). This landmark law was championed by the ACLU and passed in 2008, becoming the strongest biometric privacy law in the nation. The law requires all private entities doing business within the state to obtain consent before collecting biometric information. This information must be secured and treated as confidential and sensitive information, it cannot be sold, and a retention and destruction schedule for biometric data must be published.

The timing of this effort by Senators Bill Cunningham, Chris Nybo, and Napoleon Harris, III to dismantle protections is incredibly tone deaf as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress to explain how lax privacy protections led to the leak of 87 million people’s personal data to Cambridge Analytica. Facebook data was used to create personality profiles which were turned against unsuspecting Americans to subtly influence opinions in multiple elections. Zuckerberg himself acknowledges these were issues beyond his imagination at the time the data was exposed, “If you had asked me, when I got started with Facebook, if one of the central things I’d need to work on now is preventing governments from interfering in each other’s elections, there’s no way I thought that’s what I’d be doing if we talked in 2004 in my dorm room.”

Legislation to add new and broad exemptions to BIPA is being considered this week by the Illinois Senate Telecommunications and Information Technology Committee, Chaired by Senator Cunningham. If this law were to pass, it would open up a Pandora’s box of safety and civil rights issues.

This legislation creates new loopholes to allow corporations to sell this data. It lowers the standard by which companies must protect this data and it exempts any entity from this law that uses biometric data for employment, human resources, fraud prevention, or security purposes.

Here are just a few ways this bill would harm Illinoisans:

If passed, this law would put survivors of domestic violence at risk. As described by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, many survivors of domestic violence are forced to change their names and identity to protect themselves and their family. A name and other forms of identification can be altered, a face cannot. The security exemption creates the possibility that a survivor could be outed simply by shopping in a retail store, seeing a movie, or going to a ball game, endangering them and their family.

These change to BIPA would almost certainly lead to discrimination. For example, mugshots nationally have been digitized and processed through facial recognition software. Corporations can tie their security systems into these databases for real-time comparison of customers or job applicants. Facial recognition technology has been demonstrated to be 5% to 10% less accurate on African Americans, putting them at increased risk of being confused with a different person who may have a record.

Just this week, two black men were arrested for sitting in a Starbucks. They were handcuffed, photographed, and fingerprinted. They weren’t charged with any crime; however, those police photographs will end up in a database used by facial recognition systems, potentially forever flagging these men to be intimidated or followed by security in a retail store or raising a flag to a future employer.

Companies are creating software, which make dubious claims that facial recognition technology can identify a person’s emotional state, determine whether they have a high IQ, or foresee whether they are a potential terrorist. These claims are reminiscent of 18th century junk science known as phrenology, which claimed to be able to derive personality and intelligence traits from the shape of one’s skull. Currently these snake-oil salesmen have no market in Illinois, but this legislation would open the door to them.

These are the scenarios we can reasonably foresee. What scenarios to weaponize our biometric information are we and the future Zuckerberg’s of the world unable to imagine today? Facebook can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The data they released in 2013 is forever outside of their control and remains relevant. People’s fundamental personality traits do not change, just like our faces and fingerprints do not change. Instead of working for corporations to weaken our current protections our legislators should be working for Illinoisans to further strengthen much needed privacy protections.

A similar attempt to weaken BIPA was made in May 2016. At that time, legislators tried to sneak through an amendment on an unrelated bill as the legislature headed out the door for the Memorial Day recess. Quick action by data privacy activists and concerned citizens stopped that legislation then and can do the same today. The current legislation is supported both by some Democrats and Republicans, who may not be fully informed of the consequences of these changes.

Proponents of the legislation claim that changes are needed to allow employers to use time clocks or security systems that use employees fingerprints or facial recognition. To be sure, employers face challenges managing against theft or falsified time cards; however, the law must balance these needs with the personal privacy of every Illinoisan. The current proposed legislation is a poorly crafted, lacking in forethought, and puts corporations over people.

This is a bipartisan effort to dismantle our privacy protections. Our response and defense of our privacy rights should be equally bipartisan. All residents concerned about protecting your personal information should act today. 

Here's how you can help:

  1. Fill out a witness slip as an OPPONENT of SB 3053 here.
  2. Call your state senator and ask them to oppose SB 3053 because it will significantly weaken biometric privacy protections in Illinois.
  3. Call the senators pushing this legislation forward in committee and let them know that you strongly oppose any bill that weakens biometric privacy protections: Senators Bill Cunningham, Chris Nybo, and Napoleon Harris, III.
Steve Held