States try digital watermarking

Vermont and New Jersey are the first states to consider using digital watermarking to secure driver's licenses — something that's become a matter of urgency in the wake of a nationwide explosion of identity theft.

Both states are using digital watermarking provided by Digimarc ID Systems LLC, which supplies secure identification solutions to 33 states.

"The Vermont license is not very secure right now, which is one of the reasons we are doing an upgrade," said Valerie Cyr, a project manager for the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles. "Watermarking would be provided as a form of authentication that could be used by us, law enforcement and even retailers."

Security elements that many states are considering include biometrics, multicolor ultraviolet printing and smart cards. Digital watermarking would provide one of these security "layers."

Watermarking embeds unique codes into parts of a document that can be scanned by a reader to authenticate them. One code can verify that the photograph on a license belongs with the card, for example. Other codes can be tied directly to other elements on the face of the card, such as the date, which could be used to check for such things as under-21 violations on altered IDs.

"It's a covert feature that would be very hard to counterfeit," said Reed Stager, vice president of global licensing for Digimarc ID Systems, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Digimarc Corp. "It can also be used to authenticate licenses that move across state boundaries."

In particular, the ability to incorporate new security features into licenses without affecting their design "is getting good, positive response," he said.

Vermont, which announced its interest in digital watermarking earlier this month, expects to implement its driver's license upgrade toward year's end, and will decide then whether to implement digital watermarking, Cyr said.

New Jersey made its announcement in April, and officials there plan to begin upgrading the security of the state's licenses in July.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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