A Proposal to Fingerprint the Ice-Cream Man

Government officials increasingly want to treat Americans as if we're under suspicion until proven innocent.
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Kevin Dooley/Flickr

We'll all be fingerprinted in the end.

That's my prediction after seeing the support an elected official in Los Angeles County has received in his bid to make sure area ice-cream men and women are subject to background checks. "Ice-cream truck vendors are a prime example of someone that operates a business that caters to children as their primary clientele," Don Knabe reasons in a motion that passed the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. "We all have a duty and responsibility to protect our communities from situations and individuals that could put our children at risk." His solution? Subject ice-cream vendors and other people whose businesses bring them into contact with children to inkless, electronic fingerprinting as a condition of operating. The proposal was unanimously sent to county officials for review.

Practically speaking, the idea is suspect. 93 percent of juvenile sexual assault victims are abused by a family member or acquaintance, not a stranger. As well, the rate of serious violent crime against youths "declined 77 percent from 1994 to 2010," according to the Department of Justice.

More worrisome is the logic driving this proposal.

As a general proposition, the citizens of a free country should be presumed innocent, and spared having to prove their good character to the state, unless there is some cause to suspect them of being criminals. Narrow exceptions are probably necessary. I grant the compelling arguments in favor of background checks on guards at juvenile prisons and foster houses, given how common sexual abuse has proved to be in those settings, as well as inquiries into the backgrounds of folks working at nuclear power plants or researching epidemic viruses. 

I also grant the difficulty of line-drawing in this area.

But if mere proximity to children is reason enough to subject someone to mandatory fingerprinting and background checks, then few of us will be exempt for long. Ice-cream vendors almost certainly pose a lesser risk to children than boyfriends of single moms, teachers, next-door neighbors, or members of extended families. Over time that won't be lost on perennially intrusive bureaucrats.

Yet most Americans are opposed to quasi-universal background checks on principle. Even a national I.D. card is controversial. There are implementation problems too.

As J.D. Tuccille notes at Reason:

Criminal background checks aren't perfect tools.

Really, they're as fallible as any database, especially those run by government employees. Last year, the National Employment Law Project noted (PDF) that the FBI isn't so diligent about keeping its records current; about half of records are missing final disposition information. That means they reflect an arrest, but not whether a conviction resulted. As a result of such flaws, "more than 600,000 workers a year were potentially prejudiced in a job search as a result of the FBI’s failure to report accurate and complete information."

Fingerprinting ice-cream vendors may be a small, local controversy, but it is also one more illustration of the way that technology is changing the relationship between government and its citizens. Big Data makes it possible to mass-collect everything from private communications to biometric data. And what inevitably follows is a temptation to treat citizens as guilty until proven innocent rather than the reverse. Anyone might be a terrorist, or a child molester, so why not investigate everyone?

Our ability to resist this trend will help to determine whether the next generation of Americans have the rights and freedoms we enjoyed. Counterintuitively, we're ceding them to the state in a world that's already safer.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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