Politics & Government

Oops — New law accidentally banned fingerprinting of state prisoners

Fingerprints are scanned electronically at the Washington State Patrol's Criminal Records Division in Olympia. A new Washington state law that aimed to protect people’s biometric data inadvertently prevented some state agencies, such as prisons, from collecting people’s fingerprints.
Fingerprints are scanned electronically at the Washington State Patrol's Criminal Records Division in Olympia. A new Washington state law that aimed to protect people’s biometric data inadvertently prevented some state agencies, such as prisons, from collecting people’s fingerprints. dean.koepfler@thenewstribune.com

A new Washington state law was supposed to limit the collection of biometric data — such as facial and retinal scans — to protect people's privacy.

But the measure also accidentally banned state prisons from collecting inmates' fingerprints.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a new bill into law Tuesday to fix that oversight.

“This measure is needed to make a technical correction,” said Inslee, a Democrat, while signing House Bill 2213.

The new bill makes a few amendments to an earlier measure Inslee signed to restrict the collection of biometric data by public agencies. Biometric data can include scans of people’s fingerprints, facial geometry, voice patterns, or even a digital record of the unique way they walk.

House Bill 1717 required government officials to notify people and obtain their consent before collecting their biometric information, while also prohibiting agencies from selling that data.

The earlier bill made an exception for law enforcement agencies such as the Washington State Patrol. But it didn’t extend the same courtesy to limited-authority law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Corrections, which runs the state’s prisons.

The result: The initial law would have prevented prisons — and other facilities such as the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island — from collecting the fingerprints of people detained there.

State Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton and the prime sponsor of both bills, said corrections officials raised that concern after the original measure already had progressed through legislative committees.

Smith said the law as amended also would help ensure that state agencies aren’t collecting personalized biometric data they don’t need. She said that’s important for when state agencies have data breaches, such as the recent theft of a hard drive that Washington State University researchers used to store the personal data of about 1 million people.

“The difficulty in replacing, for example, a credit card or a Social Security card is well documented, but at least they can be replaced,” Smith said. “Your biometric data is not replaceable — it is unique to you and you alone.”

The measure is part of a package of bills this year that aimed to protect people’s biometric data.

Another measure, House Bill 1493, sets new rules for companies before they can enter people’s specific biometric information into a database for commercial purposes. To do that, companies would either have to notify a person, obtain his or her consent, or provide a way to limit future commercial use of the data. Inslee signed that measure into law last month.

The biometrics measure that contained the unintended error was a three-page bill lawmakers had been working on since January, allowing for months of discussion before Inslee signed it into law in May.

As of Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers had yet to announce a deal on a new two-year state operating budget that is expected to be several hundred pages long. Drafting the details of the budget — as well as a related agreement on school funding — often takes about 24 hours after an agreement is announced.

That might leave lawmakers and the public only a day or so to review the complex document before the Legislature hits a June 30 deadline to approve it. Lawmakers need to pass a budget and have Inslee sign it into law by midnight Friday to avoid a partial shutdown of state government on July 1.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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