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Protecting Pennsylvanians Personal Information

Two people driving in a car

In today’s data-driven world, there is an increasing need for people to safeguard their personal information. Villanova Law’s Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic (FLAC) has teamed up with the nonprofit coalition Driving PA Forward to educate Pennsylvania drivers on how their personal information is being shared by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot) without their knowledge.

As part of a year-long project, Villanova Law students working in FLAC filed multiple “Right to Know” requests to various branches of the Pennsylvania state government to determine what personal data is being collected and how it is being shared. The findings, recently published in a new report compiled by FLAC and Driving PA Forward, show that personal data shared with PennDot for the purpose of obtaining a driver’s license, including date-of-birth, address, height, eye color and photograph, is available to government agencies, including federal law enforcement. It is also sold to private businesses without a driver’s knowledge.

Not only is this a concern for all Pennsylvanians, but in particular those who are undocumented immigrants. In the state of Pennsylvania, undocumented immigrants are currently not legally eligible for a driver’s license. FLAC is a member of Driving PA Forward, which advocates to offer driver licenses to everyone in Pennsylvania regardless of immigration status, “This is an enormous issue impacting farmworker communities in particular,” said Caitlin Barry, Director, FLAC. “Farmworkers tend to live in rural areas where this is no public transportation and they have very limited access to services. They experience food insecurity because they cannot get to grocery stores. A driver’s license would provide life-changing access to health care and food.”

FLAC wants to change the law so that their clients can legally obtain a license, however, with added privacy regulations in place because the information PennDot collects could be used against them. “We are particularly concerned with the use of driver license information to surveil immigrant communities,” said Barry. “Immigration and customs enforcement could use information to conduct surveillance and target people for arrest, separate families and remove people from their livelihood.”

One primary way surveillance is conducted is through currently unregulated facial recognition technology. “Studies on facial recognition show that it is biased,” said Bernadette Berger ’21, a Research Assistant in FLAC’s summer advocacy program, who worked on a section of the report outlining racial bias. “It doesn’t do a good job of identifying minorities and non-white people. The technology is most accurate at correctly identifying white males and least accurate in correctly identifying black and brown females.”

Over the past few years, both Washington state and Maryland extended driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, but then saw an increase in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement running facial recognition searches for drivers. “When undocumented immigrants have their photo taken for a driver’s license, it gets put into the system and it heightens the risk that inaccuracies are going to identify the wrong person for various crimes, including the possibility of crimes they didn’t commit,” said Berger. “It’s a double edge sword—we want access to licenses for everyone, but we don’t want to have them be wrongly identified through facial recognition.”

This academic year, FLAC students are continuing to explore PennDot’s use of Pennsylvanian’s personal information. Their next area of research is looking into how PennDot sells personal data to corporations and third parties.