Mixed messages

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"Identity crisis"

In March, a poll of 1,120 Americans by the research organization Gartner Inc. concluded that "U.S. citizens remain wary of a national ID system...even though virtually all U.S. citizens already have a de facto national ID in the form of a driver's license."

Researcher Richard Hunter said his poll revealed that 41 percent of Americans oppose the idea of national identification cards and only 26 percent support it.

Yet just two weeks later, a poll by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) found that 87 percent of Americans favor a nationwide plan to issue driver's licenses with biometric identifiers. And 88 percent of those polled favor linking state motor vehicle databases so that law enforcement officials anywhere could check records on anyone with a license.

AAMVA concluded that the "American public overwhelmingly favors cooperative state and federal efforts" to replace current driver's licenses with high-tech licenses and a national system of linked driver databases.

Why such different findings?

The answers depend a lot on what questions are asked and how they are asked, according to the National Council on Public Polls. "Polls usually are not conducted for the good of the world. They are conducted for a reason — either to gain helpful information or to advance a particular cause," according to a council report.

Gartner researchers asked poll participants about "national ID cards" and "national ID databases" as part of its ongoing research into technology and national security, said Hunter, who headed the Gartner effort.

AAMVA, on the other hand, asked about a plan that "strengthens the current system of issuing a driver's license or ID card," closes "loopholes" in license issuing and makes licenses "more resistant to tampering and counterfeiting."

Gartner's findings:

* Opposition to a national ID database is particularly strong in the South, West and Midwest.

* Americans trust banks and credit card companies more than government agencies to manage databases of personal information.

* The agencies that Americans trust the least are state motor vehicle departments and the Internal Revenue Service.

* The public strongly supports the use of national ID cards for airport security and for foreigners seeking entry into the country.

* Overall, "people are quite suspicious of what governmental agencies might do" with ID cards and personal data.

AAMVA's findings:

* 65 percent of Americans believe it is too easy to obtain a false ID card, such as a fake driver's license.

* 77 percent favor modifying the current system of issuing driver's licenses and ID cards.

* 87 percent say driver's licenses should be made more resistant to tampering and counterfeiting by using biometrics such as fingerprints and holograms.

* 88 percent say states should be allowed to search one another's records to verify the identities and driving histories of those applying for driver's licenses.

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