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Byline: Cathleen Ferraro Scripps-McClatchy Western Service

Fingerprinting isn't just for police rap sheets anymore.

Test-takers now are required to submit to a thumb smudge in several professions. And before long, job applicants will be put through the same procedure, according to experts across a number of fields who envision a relaxation of privacy laws and a blossoming of better, cheaper technology that will make it easier to use fingerprinting for instant background checks.

``It's about four or five years away,'' predicted Gary Cooper, executive director of Search, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, a nonprofit research company based in the Greenhaven area. ``A (fingerprint) scanning machine will be as common as a copying machine, at least at the large companies. It'll be part of doing business.''

Cooper and others say businesses in greater numbers are looking for better ways to get detailed information about people they're hiring. So far, the best way to match up the right information with the right people is through fingerprints - or digitized ``finger images'' as they are more commonly called now to soften the ink-mess, gangster image of the old term.

For now, access to personal data mostly depends on the strictness of each state's privacy laws. In California, it's generally much harder to get that kind of information than in other states.

Examples abound of the widening use of fingerprinting in a variety of occupational settings.

Last year, the National Association of Securities Dealers started fingerprinting people taking licensing exams. By the end of 1997, the professional group said, it will also videotape people sitting for exams. Both practices grew out of the biggest test-taker-for-hire ring in the securities industry that was busted about two weeks ago.

According to an official with the California Department of Justice, the number of people being fingerprinted statewide for employment licensing or certification has been growing steadily in the past 15 to 20 years.

``Most years a new category of people to be fingerprinted is added,'' said Gary Maggy, chief of the bureau of criminal identification and information at the California Department of Justice, where roughly 651,000 fingerprints were submitted last year.

Often legislation or state regulations must precede mandatory fingerprinting that is typically used to check for criminal records of job applicants.

Historically, printing has been used primarily on police officers and securities brokers. More recently in California, anyone providing care for children, including teachers, school custodians and secretaries, has been fingerprinted, too.

Since 1992, even Californians wanting to work as tow truck drivers, for example, have been required to give their finger creases and whorls after complaints of crime surfaced.

Recently in San Francisco, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals started requiring potential animal adopters to provide their thumbprint before taking home certain dogs.

The state lottery takes prints of all 800 employees and anyone who regularly does business with them - mostly to make sure they don't have a gambling problem.

``We even fingerprint the guy who delivers our water,'' said Melissa Meith, chief counsel at the California Lottery.

A New York restaurant uses a fingerprinting device for gaining access to its wine cellar.

In December, Wells Fargo Bank started fingerprinting noncustomers in some branches in order to nab fraudulent check writers. Bank of America plans to do the same here beginning Saturday.

And some hospitals have started programs in which doctors use their fingerprint as a computer log-on to access patient files or dispense prescriptions.

``The American public is increasingly comfortable with fingerprinting,'' said Bob Belair, a Washington, D.C., lawyer specializing in privacy.

Results of a recent survey published in Privacy & American Business newsletter show that most Americans are, indeed, at ease with fingerprinting.

Three of four people telephoned last summer about the subject said they would be comfortable having their own fingertip digitally scanned to qualify for a business or government program.

The poll, conducted by Opinion Research Corporation in Princeton, N.J., also showed 83 percent of Americans disagreed that obtaining a digitized finger image for identification violated an individual's dignity.

``I think more and more we want to know something about people before we hire them, give them credit or let them in a certain educational institution,'' Belair said.

According to Maggy of the Justice Department, fingerprinting among California's private employers so far is ``pretty limited.''

But several experts, particularly those developing technology to record images of the face, voice or skin, say the tide is changing.

``I see private employers widening their use of finger imaging to protect sensitive corporate information such as proposals in development or payroll,'' said Walter Hamilton, director of business development at National Registry Inc., a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based software firm.

``With the proliferation of network databases it makes the identity of users imperative to protect the confidentiality of data.''

Experts agree that as the cost of fingerprint scanners drop, use will climb. Typically, scanning devices for desktop personal computers run about $2,000 to $3,000, say industry sources. Some companies, though, are now offering them for as little as $500.

Hamilton said the entire field of biometric identification - technology for doing facial imaging, voice recognition or scanning of the retina or iris - is gaining force.

Already, the Pentagon uses a system whereby people trying to get into a certain room can enter only after putting their hand in a nearby scanner that reads their unique print.

``From airline pilots to doctors, there's a growing interest in people proving (they are) who they claim to be,'' Hamilton said.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 26, 1997

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