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Job seekers increasingly fingerprinted
Background checks give rise to new technology, mixed reviews

Baltimore Sun | June 13 2005

The green light on the fingerprint scanner glows, indicating it's time to place Kelli Mattingly's right hand on the glass. The procedure is repeated with her left hand. In less than a minute, her prints are ready to be sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a criminal-background check.

Mattingly is a would-be volunteer for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which anticipates no problems in taking her on. Rather, the archdiocese, based in Hyattsville is one of many private employers trying to comply with a patchwork of new state and federal laws requiring background exams with fingerprint checks.

Once a rarity for job applicants, fingerprints are now required in myriad locales for those seeking positions in a host of fields. Applicants for the janitor's job at the Bruggemeyer Memorial Library in Monterey, Calif., must be screened with prints, as must liquor store owners in Telluride, Colo., and school-bus drivers throughout Illinois. What's more, insurers are requiring some companies to conduct background checks, including fingerprints, of workers.

The laws requiring fingerprints have spawned a cottage industry of electronic fingerprint capturers, companies that gather prints by computer or those that convert the old-style fingerprint cards to electronic images. Once taken, most of the prints are sent to state authorities, which pass them on to the FBI fingerprint center in Clarksburg, Va.

Last year, the FBI performed 9 million checks for private employers, up from 3.5 million in 1992; in fact, half of the FBI's fingerprint checks today are employment-related.

The mass fingerprinting is raising concerns among privacy advocates and forensic experts, who question both the wisdom of widespread fingerprinting and the accuracy of fingerprint data.

Placing prints in the hands of private companies will eventually make it easier for someone to replicate and misuse fingerprints of average citizens, said Timothy Sparapani, legislative counsel on privacy issues for the American Civil Liberties Union.

"There is no such thing as a totally secure database, especially when information is falling routinely between law enforcement and a private company millions of times a year. There are going to be data spills," he said.

It's a realistic concern. Just last month, a travel agency for the Justice Department lost information on 80,000 of its employees.

In addition, the technological examination of fingerprints is hardly error-free. The FBI recently acknowledged that its automated fingerprint system failed to identify a man wanted for a 2000 sexual assault when Georgia authorities picked him up in January 2004 on a trespassing charge. Brian Jones, 32, used an alias and was released after the system failed to link him to the more serious charge. He was arrested again last September and is a suspect in four murders that occurred after his January release.

Each state has an agency that accepts fingerprints, including those from local law enforcement groups, and compares them with the state's criminal records before forwarding them to the FBI for similar checks.

There is only one federal database of fingerprints, the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, run by the FBI. It contains 44 million digitized sets of fingerprints, primarily from criminal offenders. The agency processes an average of 60,000 fingerprints a day, though it recently hit a record daily high of 85,000. It charges $22 per check.

For years, employees of private organizations needing prints checked went through law-enforcement agencies. That process was inconvenient because police departments had limited time for printing and used ink and cards. Now, companies such as National Background Check Inc., a Columbus, Ohio, company with 12 offices around that state, digitally fingerprint thousands of job applicants and other individuals each month and usually process the prints within 24 hours. The speed "allows people to make hiring decisions rather than firing decisions," said Eric Lapp, the company's vice president.

Integrated Biometric Technology LLC of Nashville, Tenn., was awarded an $80 million contract by the Transportation Security Administration to fingerprint all commercial drivers who transport hazardous materials, such as fuel, because of requirements in the Patriot Act and the Safe Explosives Act. The requirement went into effect in January.

"I believe the growth and demand in the private sector for knowing who you're hiring is where we're going to go," said Charles Carroll, the founder of Integrated. "Sooner or later, all the information will be stored by biometrics [the use of physical characteristics to identify a person] and not Social Security numbers."

For employers and employees, though, the expense can be hard to swallow.

Daniel England, chief executive officer of C.R. England Inc., a Salt Lake City trucking company, said the fingerprint requirement costs drivers seeking a hazardous-materials license $94, in addition to the $30 to $40 they pay for their commercial driver's licenses.

"You go to the customer and try to recover that from them, and they don't want to pay it," England said.

For religious organizations that have day-care centers or schools, however, fingerprinting is welcome.

"If I could use retinal scans I'd use that, too," said Jessie Harris, executive administrator of the Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore.

 

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