Attacks revive national debate about ID cards

privacy at issue

October 01, 2001|By Ross Kerber | Ross Kerber,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Suddenly, a national identity card system doesn't seem so far-fetched.

An idea that had relatively little support before the Sept. 11 terror attacks now may be gaining some momentum. With government agencies looking for new ways to track suspects, and companies responding with new technology, the issue is now on the agenda of a congressional subcommittee.

Privacy objections have been raised against such proposals in the past. But in recent years, state motor-vehicle bureaucrats have quietly laid the technical groundwork to allow authorities to instantly check any driver's license against official databases.

The system encourages states to standardize the bar codes and magnetic stripes on the millions of driver's licenses they issue each year. This means data such as a person's name and address can be quickly scanned in any jurisdiction. A few companies sell hardware to allow data-scanners to compare the licenses against government records, much like the credit-card readers widely used in retail stores.

All of these steps were initially meant to help police during traffic stops and to deter underage drinking.

But since the destruction of the World Trade Center, the license technologies have also drawn interest from federal authorities looking to pick out suspects moving through checkpoints like airports or border crossings.

One scanning-device maker, Logix Co. of Longmont, Colo., said it received an order from the Secret Service's financial-crimes division last week. The agency plans to use the readers to combat financial fraud by comparing data from credit cards to data encoded on driver's licenses, Logix said.

Scott Bahneman, a Logix Co. vice president, said he has held talks with other agencies, including the State Department, in the days after the attacks. Officials hope the scanners might be used to automatically compare identity-card data with electronic watch lists of wanted individuals, Bahneman said.

State Department officials say upgraded driver's licenses could make it harder to obtain passports under false names. Since driver's licenses are the most common form of identification that Americans use to obtain passports, "anything one could do [to] make that [driver's license] a more secure document, we'd be in support of," said a State Department official who asked not to be named.

Whatever driver's license technologies emerge will help illustrate the balance that society strikes between privacy and security. The high-tech upgrades are being discussed partly because authorities suspect some of the Sept. 11 hijackers might have used false identities during the years they lived in the United States. Until more specifics are known about the terrorists' tactics, of course, it won't be clear whether new license formats would have made a difference.

One forum for the discussion will be the House subcommittee on immigration, which is considering new passport technologies in hopes of deterring future attackers from entering the country. Subcommittee chairman George Gekas of Pennsylvania said a national ID card system will also be considered. "Over the years, that kind of thing has been deemed to be like Big Brother and therefore objectionable," Gekas said in an interview. But while he won't necessarily endorse such a proposal, Gekas said, he believes the terror attacks have changed the political climate toward the idea.

Besides, given all of the advances in driver's licenses, he said, "for all intents and purposes, we're practically at the situation where the identity of every American is readily available."

He's not far off. Most states have agreed to design their licenses according to guidelines from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, in Arlington, Va., known as the "National Standard for the Driver License/Identification Card." The standard would apply to cards issued to non-drivers.

The 90-page document describes a host of ways to make security features more useful to authorities in any state. For instance, the paper suggests exactly how states might format the magnetic stripes that 21 states, including Maryland, run across the back of their license cards. These stripes can hold up to 275 bytes of data, enough to encode most of the information printed on the front of the cards, such as a person's name and address.

Magnetic stripes are useful because they can be read by credit-card scanners, already present at millions of retail counters. But the data on the stripes can be altered by counterfeiters as well.

To store more information more securely, states can use a two-dimension bar code, a field of thousands of black-and-white pixels that takes up about a square inch and resembles the cover of a composition notebook. These bar codes can hold about 2,000 bytes of data, or enough to encode a small mugshot of a person. So far, 24 states, also including Maryland, have begun to include such a barcode; the U.S. military does as well.

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