Government Technology

Drivers' Licenses Now a Tool for Homeland Security

December 21, 2004 By

Mass driver's license
Look closely at Massachusetts' new driver's license and you'll notice an outline of the state. Hold it at a slightly different angle, and instead you'll see the word "Massachusetts."

The changing image, known as a Kinegram, is one of several security features the Bay State recently added to its drivers' licenses. It acted shortly before Congress called for the first federal standards on drivers' licenses and other state-issued identification cards.

State officials hope Massachusetts and other states ahead of the curve in making their drivers' licenses more secure will serve as models for a new federal rule-making committee on drivers' licenses mandated by Congress. The drive to beef up security of drivers' licenses nationwide was signed into law Dec. 17 by President Bush as part of a massive overhaul of U.S. intelligence processes to try to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks .

The new federal law has some state officials upset because, up to now, it has been strictly a state's business how it issues and designs the drivers' cards commonly used as identification nationwide.

"Our concern is that federal standards will stifle innovation because states are doing things differently from each other," said Cheye Calvo, who handles federal-state issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "But all states are advancing the ball in terms of security.... To try and impose a one-size-fits-all approach, I think, is short-sighted."

The Kinegram on Massachusetts' new cards features several additional layers of images and code designed to make tampering obvious and to make the cards nearly impossible to replicate.

"Bar none, this is the most tamper-resistant license in America," Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Daniel Grabauskas bragged in a press release.

Massachusetts is the first to use the state-of-the-art technology on drivers' licenses but isn't alone in revamping its licensing procedures. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, in which four of the 19 hijackers used valid state-issued drivers' licenses to board the airplanes they later crashed, drivers' licenses have been viewed as a homeland-security tool and not just a way to regulate who's allowed on the nation's roadways.

A number of states have been adopting innovations -- both in the physical appearance of the licenses and in how they're issued -- and could provide ideas for the federal rule-making panel.

In Colorado, state officials are employing facial recognition technology that uses a digital photograph to take measurements of an applicant's facial features. The data is fed into a computer and compared to photographs already on file to determine whether the applicant already has a Colorado license under another name. The process has netted an average of 20 duplicate applicants a month.

Colorado also is among a small but growing number of states that have outfitted their licenses with digital watermarks, coded data invisible to the naked eye that can be read by an electronic scanner to determine whether the license is valid.

In Florida, Department of Motor Vehicles officials use new auditing processes to ensure that licensing data and materials are secure from the time an applicant steps into a Department of Motor Vehicles office until a finished license is placed in his hands.

At least 13 states now use some form of biometric -- or body measurement -- technology to verify the identity of those renewing or replacing drivers' licenses, according to NCSL.

Biometrics software takes photographs or scans facial features, retinas or fingerprints and quantifies that information into mathematical algorithms. Facial biometrics quantify the distances between major points such as the eyes, nose or temples, and fingerprint biometrics quantify the distances between points on the hand. Scans of the thumb or other physical features can be

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