License flaws run deep, officials say

GAO Testimony: Counterfeit Identification and Identification Fraud Raise Security Concerns (PDF)

A recent congressional investigation revealing how easy it is to get a valid driver's license using fake names and counterfeit identification documents is just the tip of the iceberg, according to a spokesman of a national organization dedicated to strengthening the system.

From July 2002 through May 2003, undercover investigators from the General Accounting Office's Office of Special Investigations visited motor vehicle agencies in Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Arizona, California, Michigan, New York and Washington, D.C., using the fake documents and valid undercover Social Security Numbers.

In testimony to the Senate Finance Committee earlier this week, OSI officials said motor vehicle agency clerks did not recognize the presented counterfeit documents and some failed to follow security procedures. In every case, investigators obtained fraudulent driver's licenses.

Jason King, a spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, said his group isn't surprised by the findings. "Unfortunately, the GAO report provided the tip of the iceberg in the breakdowns of the driver's license framework," he said.

He said states need a comprehensive solution to fix the problem. A solution should include tightened application requirements for obtaining driver's licenses, electronic capability to verify an applicant's driver history and authenticity of the documents they bring to the counter, better internal audits for catching fraud and better employee training.

"We can't just fix one piece of the puzzle and hope the rest will fall into place somehow," he said. "But if all states aren't moving together down the same road at the same pace to make the practices more secure and the procedures more uniform, you're only going to have a chain that is as strong as the weakest link."

The motor vehicle administrators' group has been at the forefront of the issue since the Sept. 11, 2201, attacks, calling for states to have stricter, more uniform standards for verifying applicants' identities and better security features within the cards themselves. It also wants state databases linked so authorities in any state can have access to other states' driving records.

Several states have taken steps to improve driver's license security. For example, Oregon officials announced their new driver's licenses will have more tamper-resistant laminate, ghost images of cardholders' photos, bar-coded information on the back and digitized signatures, among other features. Other states are using digital watermarking or biometrics.

King said his organization is studying biometric technologies, such as fingerprint, facial recognition and geometry and iris scan, as possible ways to authenticate an applicant and/or include such unique identifiers within the cards themselves.

However, greater political determination and more funding is needed to improve the entire system, said King. The organization wants greater collaboration between the federal government and states because without money to implement improvements, the proposals "will just be little more than best practices."

Several congressional lawmakers have introduced bills to provide funding, but King wasn't aware of any developments. However, he said the GAO testimony is a good indicator that Congress isn't shirking its role in the issue.

"I believe it's encouraging that the Senate Finance Committee directed GAO to do this investigation," he said. "That tells me that they're looking at it. That tells me it's on the radar."


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