Driver's Licenses Spark Privacy Debate
Sat Jan 15, 6:34 PM ET U.S. National - AP
ROBERT TANNER, AP National Writer
That plastic card, the one with the lousy photo that's jammed into
your wallet or purse, isn't just a license to drive. It's the green
light to buy a drink, the ticket to federal benefits, the must-have
document to get aboard airplanes. Now it's also the flash point for
an argument about how best to balance America's security needs with
worries that personal privacy could be swept away.
The federal intelligence overhaul that became law last month — while
creating a new national intelligence director and beefing up border
patrols — also aims to close loopholes for identity fraud that some
of the Sept. 11 terrorists used to get aboard the jets they hijacked.
Privacy advocates warn that the new federal standards for driver's
licenses will effectively create a national ID card, centralizing
information that can be misused — by letting the government track
the whereabouts of innocent people, for instance. Government officials
say they're just making the cards more secure, and that the worries
"There is a strong sense of protection of privacy by all of the
administrators of DMV records, because we know the value of the information
we've been entrusted with," said George Tatum, North Carolina's
Department of Motor Vehicle commissioner. "We just want you to
be who you say you are."
The small provision in the massive intelligence overhaul doesn't take
effect immediately. It requires a year-and-a-half of deliberation
by state and federal officials, and others.
States can opt out — refuse to make changes to their driver's licenses
that will be required under the federal law — but then the licenses
would be useless for any federal purpose, from getting benefits to
boarding an airplane guarded by federal screeners.
The intelligence law aims to standardize the documents drivers present
to get a license, the ways DMV workers verify that those documents
are authentic, the information included on a license and the steps
authorities take to ensure licenses can't be forged. The law also
requires that licenses can be read by machines.
In years past, the market for fake driver's licenses was driven by
teenagers hoping to get into a nightclub or repeat drunk drivers,
who lost their licenses trying to get back on the road. Now, identity
theft is a bigger problem, and terrorists a bigger fear.
Many of the law's specifics have yet to be decided. Will licenses
include biometric information like fingerprints or retinal scans?
Will "machine-readable" mean bar codes or radio frequency
identification systems — in which a tiny computer chip transmits data
and can theoretically be used to track location?
Some state groups, including the National Conference of State Legislatures,
opposed the proposals to have the federal government take control
of what has traditionally been solely under states' control — though
states have already been moving ahead to tighten the licensing process.
Advocates in Congress were given a big boost by recommendations from
the Sept. 11 commission, which noted the ease with which terrorists
got licenses. Still, language the House approved that would have barred
driver's licenses for illegal immigrants was struck from the measure
that became law. At least nine states now allow such licenses.
Civil libertarians warn that the push to make the driver's license
the "gold standard" for ID will only make it easier to steal
someone's identity — and will increase the value of counterfeit licenses,
undermining the hopes that these steps will provide better security.
"Let's say someone steals your driver's license and substitutes
their biometrics on there, and basically puts their identity on that
card. They then have an official document that says they are you,"
said Marv Johnson at the American Civil Liberties Union (news - web
sites). "How do you prove you are you?"
He worries, also, that personal information can be stolen or sold,
or people tracked. The biggest danger is that, as the nation becomes
more security-minded, and relies more on driver's licenses as ID,
our society changes, Johnson said. "You just wind up being a
nation where you have to show your papers to go anyplace. That's something
the American people have never put up with."
The same ID across the country, even with a different logo for each
of the 50 states, is "a national ID card. They might pretend
it's not, but it is," said Bruce Schneier, a computer security
expert and author of "Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security
in an Uncertain World."
Government officials say that the information for America's 190 million
drivers is protected. Individual states maintain their own databases
on driver's licenses, though all but two states allow motor vehicle
administrations to share information about problem drivers through
a national registry. Better technology should allow law enforcement
to access more and faster data about drivers across state lines, too,
said Betty Serian, deputy secretary for safety administration at Pennsylvania's
Still, that doesn't mean private information will be sold, stolen
or made public, Serian said and it doesn't create a central database
— though Schneier would argue that point. "The information you
give us right now is confidential and private," she said. "It's
not in any way compromised by this new legislation."
On the Web:
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators: http://www.aamva.org