Greg Rolland: Keep FBI’s hands off our school employees’ fingerprints

Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2014
EASTHAMPTON — Ordinary, non-criminal citizens should not, as a general rule, be subject to FBI fingerprinting. However, the kindergarten teachers of my twin daughters, both devoted and caring women, should?

So says the recent Massachusetts law that will mandate fingerprinting of all school employees in the state, and send those fingerprints to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The idea is that a nationwide criminal background check is needed to make sure our children are safe from dangerous individuals.

While I understand the reasoning, we need a better solution. Teachers are not on the list of major abusers of children. They are not a class of dangerous individuals. The vast majority of physical and sexual abuse of children comes, in fact, from parents, followed by close family members, friends and neighbors.

No one is proposing fingerprinting of new parents as they leave the hospital, largely because it is seen as an unacceptable invasion. Which it is.

Fingerprinting has, until recently, been associated with the “suspect class” of arrestees and criminals. Now it’s going mainstream. The one fingerprint vendor hired by the Commonwealth — a French aerospace subsidiary — boasts that the law will deliver it an estimated 245,000 applicants annually — mostly dedicated non-criminal school employees, mostly women.

To be clear: This law establishes the collection of individually specific, biological information as a common and normal activity for the citizenry of Massachusetts, a practice that can be increasingly called upon even without presumption of guilt.

And in a strange twist, now the presumption of guilt falls uncomfortably on school employees who take issue with the new program. (Although very few school employees are actually aware of the change.)

Fingerprinting is a major departure from the statewide CORI background check in use, which is essentially a name-and-address check. Because a name check system is what CORI is, and the major deficiency was its geographic limitation to Massachusetts, what we need is a name check system at the national level, not collection of biometrics.

A name check is a snapshot in time, biometric data collection is forever.

The new law, however, requires a permanent submission of biometric information that will be nearly impossible to undo for any participant. Employees who refuse face significant economic consequences.

It also goes a long way to justify future collections of biometric information, such as facial recognition profiles or genetic samples, in the name of safety. This is a dangerous path.

Ironically, the FBI can perform name checks of its national registry, and does so when fingerprints are unreadable. Lawmakers and citizens would do well to make it clear that, should this name check system be made more widely available, the collection of biometric data from ordinary, non-criminal citizens should be suspended.

No language exists in the law to make that preference known. Nor does any language exist mandating that fingerprint submissions to the FBI not be added to any federal database, but used instead for criminal background checking only.

The move from state to federal background checks is significant and should be done carefully. It is not hard to imagine submissions being used by federal authorities for purposes unrelated to keeping children safe. Will someone’s immigration status be scrutinized when it otherwise wouldn’t have? What about someone who owes back taxes or alimony? Or who has been arrested protesting the government?

In the wake of secretive NSA surveillance of ordinary Americans, we know there is a large government appetite for monitoring the private activities of citizens. In fact, there is already a growing biometric database of ordinary, non-criminal citizens (try Googling “FBI facial recognition database”). The government has not needed the permission of its citizens to create such a database. But this law now fuels its growth, and will likely justify subsequent collections of invasive and personally-identifiable biological information.

To be clear, it is not unusual for some professions to require fingerprinting. Many federal employees are required to be fingerprinted, as are law enforcement and military personnel. If you are working with deadly force or employed by the federal government, your prints are on file with the FBI. That is understood as a condition of employment. For some professions, such as police officers, there may even be a forensic benefit to having fingerprints on file.

School workers, however, are different. They are locally employed and many are not government workers at all, but work in the private sector for private institutions. Additionally, there is no clear forensic benefit in fingerprinting this class of workers, so a name check process on the national level is a far better way to protect civil liberties.

Were such an option to become available, it ought to be embraced immediately.

Ultimately, if my children grow up inspired to become teachers or otherwise work in our school systems — and I hope they consider it — they should feel protected from government overreach and abuse. And if they try it out and opt for something else, they should not regret that their biometric information has been irreversibly collected and warehoused for all time.

Greg Rolland serves on the Community Preservation Act Committee in Easthampton, where he lives.