Monday, January 6, 2014

The Daveea Whitmire reporting - what is a "Live Scan"?

Too often we focus on visible things, like a piece of computer hardware, and completely ignore the underlying things that make the hardware work.

The latest example can be found in Pando Daily's otherwise excellent reporting on the apparently shoddy background checks administered to Uber driver Daveea Whitmire. You see, despite passing a background check, it turns out that Whitmire had a felony conviction for selling marijuana, an arrest for buying cocaine to resell, and other offenses. Note to prospective taxi drivers - drug convictions and arrests are not a good thing for you.

The Pando Daily writer, Carmel DeAmicis, then took some time to explain some apparent differences between the background checks for Uber employees and the background checks for more closely related taxicab drivers.

Ridesharing startups don’t have the oversight of traditional taxi companies in California. In most major cities, taxi companies are required to do Live Scan, fingerprint-based background checks of their drivers through the Department of Justice and FBI systems. According to William Rouse, the former President of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, the background check results go straight to the transportation regulatory agencies for vetting, not just to the taxi companies themselves.

In addition to combing official databases, the Live Scan also updates after the fact. If a driver gets arrested for raping someone after being hired, the company will be notified. In contrast, other background checks are a static picture in time.

Perhaps it's a minor quibble, but while the statements above are somewhat accurate, the terminology is a little bit off.

A "Live Scan" is a computer with associated hardware and software that is designed for capturing biometric data (usually fingerprints, sometimes other things). My employer sells Live Scans, as do a number of other companies. These devices can capture very good quality digital images of fingerprints and other biometric data.

However, a Live Scan in and of itself is pretty useless. The Live Scan only does any good when it is networked to various computer databases. For example, if you are applying for a taxi driver job in California, your fingerprints will be submitted to the California Department of Justice, who maintains a fingerprint database of all criminals. If your prints are determined to match the prints of a criminal, then this information will be shared with the hiring agency.

Similarly, applicant background checks can be conducted against the national database managed by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Again, if your prints match those of a criminal in the FBI's database, then this information will be shared with the hiring agency.

For example, let's say that John Doe was drunkenly driving around in New Hampshire and killed ten people, serving prison time. He would have been fingerprinted at the time of arrest, and his prints would presumably make their way into the FBI database. Several years later, if he tried to get a job with a Yellow Cab outlet in California, the background check would reveal Doe's prior drunk driving arrest and conviction.

The key thing is that this data is revealed only when the Live Scan is configured to search the relevant database. No database search, no results.

Take the sentence "If a driver gets arrested for raping someone after being hired, the company will be notified." A Live Scan by itself does not "update after the fact." Someone needs to design a workflow that detects when an applicant has a subsequent arrest.

However, regardless of the imprecise terminology, DeAmicis' basic point still applies - the "background check" conducted on Daveaa Whitmire was obviously not up to par.

National background checks vary wildly in quality, scope, and validity. “A background check is whatever you want to call it. It’s not necessarily a particular set of instructions,” [private investigator Brian] Willingham says. “You can do anything from $15 background checks, to billing out a client for $100,000 background checks which involve digging into every piece of dirt in a person’s past.”

Obviously you don't want to conduct a $100,000 background check on every potential taxi driver. But in many cases, the $15 background check is not sufficient.
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