All 50 states agree to upgrade driver's licenses
Seeking to improve security features
By Ross Kerber, Globe Staff
Officials from all 50 states have agreed to cooperate on upgrading driver's license security features, giving momentum to efforts to turn the licenses into de facto national identity cards.
The state officials may also seek $70 million or more in federal funds to study issues like how they might include data such as fingerprints or digital photographs on the driver's licenses, which are carried by more than 200 million Americans.
The goal is to improve security following the attacks of Sept. 11, according to a spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which is scheduled to announce the plans today in Washington. At least several of the terrorists who struck on that day are believed to have fraudulently obtained licenses in Virginia and other states known for their weak license controls.
In response, some have called for the creation of a formal national identity card system. But that would be an expensive undertaking and is opposed by many who fear it would dangerously centralize too much personal information.
The proposed upgrades to the state licenses are seen as an intermediate step, and haven't drawn nearly as much criticism. In fact, some analysts say the changes are long overdue as licenses have become necessary for all sorts of daily activities, from opening a bank account to boarding an airplane.
By failing to check whether they were issuing licenses to valid recipients, many state bureaucracies ''have failed miserably, decade after decade,'' said Shane Ham, senior analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute.
In addition to forging the consensus for security upgrades, the state administrator's group, known as AAMVA, has also formed a task force to consider technical coordination issues. These include how driver's license databases from different states could be linked with law-enforcement agencies, and how to prevent people from fradulently obtaining licenses with false or foreign documents.
These efforts will follow a campaign already begun by AAMVA to promote technical standards for the bar codes and magnetic strips on many state licenses so they could be scanned in any jurisdiction. Presently these vary widely. Some states including Massachusetts use two-dimension bar codes that can store thumbnail-size personal photos; a few are considering ''smart cards'' that would store information on computer chips. But others states like Vermont don't require driver's licenses to include a photograph at all.
Officials say they must also train license issuers to recognize false documents that might be used to fraudulently obtain a valid ID. ''This isn't as glamorous as the high-tech stuff,'' said John Munday, president of Bedford-based Digimarc ID Systems, the largest license-production contractor. ''But it's a key piece if you're going to stop identity fraud.''
Munday's business was previously owned by Polaroid Corp.; his company and its main competitor, Littleton-based Viisage Technology Inc., stand to benefit from more spending in the area. Other beneficiaries could include integration companies like EDS Corp. or database producer Oracle Corp., whose chief executive, Larry Ellison, has been a strong proponent of linking digital information systems with data-rich ID cards.
Steve Perkins, who heads Oracle's public sector business in Reston, Va., said many of these ideas were feasible before, but had little funding. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, he said, ''there's now a political will. Before, there was never enough money to go beyond what your specific mission was'' on a given government contract.
An AAMVA spokesman, Jason King, said the agency hasn't yet determined from which agency it will seek the research funding. King said he didn't know whether any federal agencies would endorse its plans, as they have been invited to do.
The Bush administration's homeland-security director, Tom Ridge, in the past has dismissed the need for national identity cards. Last week, representatives from his office, the FBI, and the Justice Department, said officials weren't available to discuss
Ross Kerber can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 1/14/2002.
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