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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Should you ever have to give a thumbprint to cash a check?

CONCORD – Two years after a controversy arose because Bank of America required non-customers to get fingerprinted before cashing checks, one legislator wants to make sure it can’t happen again.

“The banks are saying ‘We need this to get the criminals,’ but in the process they’re treating all the citizens of New Hampshire as criminals,” said Rep. James Webb, R-Derry.

He is co-sponsor of a bill, HB 1262, “prohibiting banks from requiring blood samples, fingerprints and DNA samples in order to complete a banking transaction.”

The 19 state-chartered banks do not collect fingerprints, according to the state Banking Department, but federally chartered banks such as Bank of America, Citizens Bank and TD Bank have the option. Spokespeople for all three banks said Monday that they do not require fingerprints in New Hampshire, although some do require fingerprints in other states.

New Hampshire Banking Association President Christina Thornton said no bank in New Hampshire uses the system, but her group wants to keep the option open.

Webb’s bill will be discussed on the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday, where Webb expects it to be shelved as the subject of an “interim study.”

“Death with dignity – that’s what ‘interim study’ means,” he said, joking.

A more sweeping bill on the same topic, which would prevent any business or organization including the state government from collecting fingerprints, retinal scans or other “biometric data,” has already been sent to interim study.

Banks around the country have long used a system that requires a person cashing a check to put their thumbprint on the check if they don’t have an account. The bank keeps a digital copy of the check with the thumbprint, and sometimes the physical check itself.

“They are trying to prevent fraudulent activity,” said Ingrid White, hearings examiner for the Banking Department. “If a check is cashed and the person says, ‘No, wait a minute, I didn’t authorize the person to cash that check,’ there is a fingerprint on file that the bank could give to law enforcement and say, ‘Here’s the person who tried to cash the check.’”

There is no evidence of banks requiring DNA or blood samples for business, White said.

In 2010, The Telegraph highlighted the issue when it ran stories about a Hudson woman incensed when she tried to cash a check drawn on a Bank of America account and was told she would have to provide a thumbprint to get the money. After the resulting furor, Bank of America ended the practice in New Hampshire, and a spokesman said Monday that it has not been resumed.

Later that year, the House passed a bill outlawing the practice, but the bill died in the Senate.

Webb said he also was concerned about the security of digitized data, pointing to many high-profile cases in which computer systems of government agencies, business and others have been broken into, often exposing people’s private data.

“The state DMV is prohibited from taking this type of information for registering a car. If our own state can’t do this, why should a private company be allowed to take this information, when who knows how secure their database is?” Webb said.

The New Hampshire Banking Association is opposed to Webb’s bill. In earlier testimony about the bill, the association president Thornton argued the prints are not only useful to prevent fraud, but are carefully controlled.

“The thumbprint is only shared with law enforcement officials in cases where fraud has occurred. In addition, both state and federal law closely restrict state governmental and law enforcement from gaining access to records that banks maintain. ... RSA 359-C, the Right to Privacy, requires a subpoena or search warrant to be presented before these records can be shared on even a limited basis,” she testified.

A separate bill, HB 244, has tackled the issue of collecting data about physical or behavioral traits that can be used to identify people. It would outlaw any requirement “to disclose or provide biometric data as a condition of doing business” or obtaining services from an agency or firm.

Among the types of data included are voice analysis; “hand geometry, measuring hand characteristics, including the shape and length of fingers in 3 dimensions”; handwriting characteristics; “keystroke dynamics, measuring pressure applied to keypads”; and retinal scans.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.