by Laurie Rogers
In America, citizens have a constitutional right to privacy, to be "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects." The government, on the other hand, is to be open and transparent to the people. These principles are critical to America remaining a free country.
Increasingly, however, the government is turning these principles on their head, doggedly working to gain privacy for itself while limiting it or eliminating it for citizens. Agencies are obstructing public records requestors, undermining laws on government transparency and citizen rights, and working collaboratively to dodge accountability for violations of the law and the U.S. Constitution.
Spokane Public Schools has a long history of displaying little respect for the principles of privacy for citizens and transparency for itself. Recently, the school district came up with a brand new way to infringe on citizen privacy while monitoring and controlling which members of the public have access to public buildings.
On Friday, May 16, Spokane lawyer Cheryl Mitchell went to Spokane Public Schools to pick up a disc from a records request. She was told the District had implemented a new policy: visitors must scan their driver's license and allow their picture to be taken at a kiosk in the lobby before heading to other parts of the building. Her understanding was that this new policy applies to all visitors, not just to records requestors.
Is it legal for a public agency to scan driver's licenses and/or take a photo of citizens, simply because they chose to enter a public building?
Is it legal for a public agency to deny access to a public building if citizens refuse to have their photo taken?
It's reasonable to identify visitors and have a measure of security. It's reasonable to ask for proof of identity. It is not reasonable for school districts to photograph visitors, connect the photos with ID, and store that information. A school district has no legitimate need to scan anyone's driver's license. The bounty of personal information on a driver's license is an identity thief's dream.
The security of driver's licenses is being argued now before the state Supreme Court in Lakewood v. Koenig. Attorneys for the Washington State Association of Municipal Attorneys and the Washington Association of Public Records Officers argue that a driver's license number should be exempt from disclosure because it "exposes private citizens to the risk of harm such as identity theft." And that's just the number, never mind the birth date, address and photo.
The identity-theft issue alone should be enough to keep school districts from exposing citizens to that kind of risk (and themselves to subsequent liability). Hackers were wildly successful in breaching the firewalls of Target, eBay, Facebook, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Defense and others, which had invested billions of dollars in securing their databases.
On May 16, Mrs. Mitchell refused to scan her driver's license. The school district's receptionist did not know what to do and made several calls upstairs. Mrs. Mitchell was finally allowed to use the old "sign in" system and obtain the disc without her driver's license being scanned. Her photo had already been taken, however.
There obviously was no "opt out" procedure in place on May 16, nor was there any indication that the system might be making an error. An administrator finally agreed to make an exception for Mrs. Mitchell because she refused to comply. For those who did NOT complain on Friday, what happened with their information?
On May 16, Mrs. Mitchell sent an email to the District's attorney, Paul Clay, to ask about this new policy, and to inquire whether the District is using facial recognition software. Five days later, on May 21, Paul Clay wrote back to say that the District isn't "using" facial recognition software, and that the initial demand for driver's licenses was a mistake, due to "inadvertent software settings." He said the system now will accept a sign-in through the kiosk, or citizens can "utilize the driver's license scan."
Paul Clay did not mention the photos. He did not say the District lacks the capability for facial recognition or won't use it later.
Does the District have the capability for facial recognition? Will it use that technology later? If it does, will it bother to tell the public?
On May 16, I also sent a query to the superintendent and to the school board directors. After several days of silence, I sent a second query on May 21. On Thursday, May 22, I finally received an answer from Board Director Deana Brower, the board's "corresponding secretary." Brower echoed Paul Clay that the initial demand for driver's license scans was "due to inadvertent software settings." She said citizens now can sign in at the kiosk or use the driver's license scan for "convenience." She did not mention the photos. She did not answer all of the questions I put to her.
I have not heard back from the superintendent.
It has long been understood in this country that it's inappropriate to take a photo in public of someone without that person's permission, or to host a security tape without notifying the public. Mrs. Mitchell said there was no notice posted on May 16 saying that photos were being taken and stored on a server. The District can argue that permission was granted and that notification was given, but it also can be argued that this "permission" was coerced and that the notification given was unclear.
According to Mrs. Mitchell, the instructions on the District's computer say something like, "Place your face close to the computer screen." This is not just taking photos of citizens going about their business.
Where are the photos going, and how are they to be used?
How is the driver's license information to be used? How is it secured?
Deana Brower said people can scan their driver's license "for convenience."
How is it "convenient" to hand over private information to a government agency? Has Director Brower scanned her own driver's license for "convenience"? If so, can the public look at it?
Will the superintendent, board directors, administrators, or the District's legal counsel scan their driver's license for convenience?
With every scan of a driver's license and every picture taken, is the District creating a new record within the school district system?
If so, can someone request a copy of these public records? (The District likely would argue that this is personal information and thus exempt from disclosure. If so, it begs the question of why this government agency would collect it.)
Attorney Paul Clay indicated, following Mrs. Mitchell's query, that anonymous requestors of public records will not be forced to identify themselves in this manner and can pick up their requested records at the front desk. Mrs. Mitchell said, however, that the computer in the reception area appears to be taking streaming video.
Will anonymous requestors find that their photo was taken when entering the building?
To be safe, should requestors wear a bag over their head, a ski mask, or a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses? Should they hire agents to pick up the records, who will then have to identify themselves and have their photo taken?
The District ultimately made an exception to its new policy for Cheryl Mitchell because she refused, and probably because she's a lawyer.
What about everyone else who is not a lawyer? Will newspaper publishers have to have their photo taken? How about the mayor? Contractors? Newspaper reporters? Legislators? Bill Gates? The governor? County commissioners? The hundreds of attendees of the school district's annual Community Leaders Breakfast? Or, is this just another "policy" the District will enforce as it chooses?
Will ALL District employees have to identify themselves at these kiosks? Or, is this system only there to identify private citizens?
Does this policy apply to citizens attending board meetings, usually held on the same floor as the lobby? How about other meetings held upstairs, such as committee meetings and board work sessions? If so, the policy appears to conflict with the Washington State Open Meetings Act.
It's a huge step for a public agency to coerce identification and data collection on visitors.
Is the collected data to be part of the "State Longitudinal Data Systems?"
Will the information be given away or sold by the District? If so, to whom and for which purposes?
To the best of my knowledge, the District hasn't breathed a word about its new sign-in policy. I searched the school District Web site for information and found nothing. Asked for it, Deana Brower offered policies and procedures that were written decades ago and that have not been modified to include this new policy. She did not answer the question of when the new policy was approved by the board.
How much money did this new "sign-in" system cost taxpayers? If taxpayers didn't pay for it, who did and why?
What is this government agency actually aiming to do? And why on Earth would the citizens of a free country allow them to do it?
Laurie H. Rogers has a bachelor's degree in mass communication and a master's in interpersonal communication, emphasizing the evaluation of argumentation and logic. In 2001, she founded Safer Child, Inc., a nonprofit child advocacy information resource. In 2007, she narrowed her advocacy to public education, and in 2010, she founded Focus on the Squareâ¢, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving American K-12 education.
Laurie is the author of the blog "Betrayed," located at http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/. Her book Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America and What You Can Do about It (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011) is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Besides serving on the executive committee for Where's the Math?, Laurie has a background in finance, journalism and child advocacy. She has volunteered in schools – tutoring children in literacy and math, and teaching chess, argumentation and knitting. She lives in Spokane with her husband, daughter and two cats.
Contact Laurie Rogers at [email protected].