Legislation to create 'smart' licenses

Legislation that two Northern Virginia congressmen introduced May 1 would require all states to issue driver's licenses that contain a computer chip with identity information.

The approach is intended to wipe out driver's license counterfeiting and other forms of identity fraud, according to the bill's sponsors, Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Tom Davis (R-Va.), who represent technology-dense districts.

But the bill is sure to face stiff opposition from privacy advocates, who fear that driver's licenses will become the equivalent of national identification cards that could be used to collect information on their holders' activities.

The Moran and Davis bill would give states up to five years to switch to "smart card" driver's licenses that include a biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint or an eye scan, stored in digital form and readable by an electronic scanner.

Their bill, the Driver's License Modernization Act of 2002, also would require states to maintain interconnected databases containing information on license holders. With the databases, authorities in any state could check the identification data and motor vehicle records of any license holder.

Such a system of licenses and databases "can make a profound difference in our personal and national security," Moran said during a press conference unveiling the legislation.

It would "help prevent fraud, falsification and future acts of terror," Davis said in a prepared statement.

Because of lax identification checks in Virginia, eight of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers obtained fraudulent driver's licenses there and likely used the licenses as identification to board the planes they hijacked.

Despite its promise of tighter security, the plan for "smart" driver's licenses raises "significant privacy issues," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"There is little public support for a national ID card, and lawmakers are aware of that, so they keep saying it's not a national ID card," according to Rotenberg. But the licenses Moran and Davis propose would serve as the equivalent of national ID cards and have ominous implications for the future of privacy in the United States, he added.

Moran insisted that such concerns are "unfounded." He said the Driver's License Modernization Act prohibits using the high-tech driver's licenses to track individuals. "We share many of the privacy concerns, and there are provisions in the bill to prevent abuses," he said.

For example, private entities that use the licenses for identification, such as merchants or banks, would be forbidden to "capture" information from the licenses, said Shane Ham, a policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank that helped draft the legislation.

However, authorized government entities, such as police, would be permitted to store data from the licenses. Thus, digital records could be created of traffic stops, trips to airports and other instances where government entities require licenses for identification.

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