Iowa blocks false IDs

Iowa's government is building a clearinghouse that state agencies could use to block the issuance of false driver's licenses and other personal identification documents, such as those some of the Sept. 11 terrorists used to hide their identities.

The Identity-Security Clearinghouse would electronically tie a resident's birth certificate to the issuance of a Social Security number and only one ID document, such as a driver's license, said Richard Varn, Iowa's chief information officer. Safeguarding personal identities could stop identity theft and fraud, a sweeping problem across the country, Varn said.

Last year, 112 cases of identity theft were reported to the police in Des Moines, Varn said. Nationwide, the Federal Trade Commission declared identify theft the fastest growing crime, with more than 700,000 victims in 2000, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.

The clearinghouse was in the works before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but its development has taken on greater urgency with the growing emphasis on national security.

Several Sept. 11 hijackers obtained ID cards from Virginia by using forged documents. A contentious debate over creating a national ID card system has emerged, with privacy advocates saying it smacks of Big Brother. Other organizations, such as the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), have called for improving and standardizing ID and driver's license processes nationwide as well as incorporating biometric technology to strengthen an ID's validity.

Iowa isn't creating something that doesn't exist, or using "flashing, interesting" technology to validate a person's identity, Varn said. Instead, the state is simply strengthening the security and authentication of the documentation for a person's identity.

With a clearinghouse, state agencies could index and cross-reference data from health, public safety and transportation departments with the Social Security Administration. With an electronic repository of birth and death certificates, driver's licenses and photos, digital signatures, and marriage and name-change records, the state could prevent an individual from obtaining a false identity if a birth certificate is presented a second time, Varn said.

Electronic business with the state would be more secure, he said. The clearinghouse proposal also includes the creation of an Identity Theft Advocate in the state Attorney General's office to assist victims.

Iowa's Public Health Department already has digitized 11 million birth certificate records, and its Transportation Department has begun cross-referencing certificates with driver's licenses, Varn said.

He added that the federal government needs to determine acceptable official documentation for international visitors. "Whatever documentation they accept in essence becomes a birth record," he said. "Those become part of the database, so identity can be claimed for driving privileges."

But he acknowledged that for the clearinghouse initiative to be more effective, it would have to be a nationwide effort. The National Association of State Chief Information Officers' executive committee and several associations, including AAMVA, want to meet with federal officials to talk about coordinating efforts to reduce the problem, Varn said.

Jay Maxwell, president and chief operating officer of AAMVAnet Inc., called the proposal a "good first draft" to start a dialogue, but federal legislation may be needed to ensure that states follow the same processes.

Varn said he is trying to balance privacy needs with concerns about criminal matters. The clearinghouse system would empower individuals to have control over use of their own identities, he said, adding that this is not a precursor to a national identity system.

But privacy advocates are skeptical about the clearinghouse.

"In order to make it work, you'd have to have a government agent in the room where the baby is born," said Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He said 7,000 authorities can issue birth certificates.

"They're posturing and making the same mistakes," said Robert Ellis Smith, who publishes the Providence, R.I.-based Privacy Journal. Using birth certificates could prevent one form of identity theft, but probably wouldn't prevent other forms, such as credit card use, Smith said.


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