Government Technology

Taking License

January 26, 2005 By

When a subcommittee of the Virginia Legislature began exploring the idea of using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to store biometric data in a "smart driver's license" in October 2004, the issue exploded into a national controversy.

The issue of modernizing drivers' licenses, which Virginia set out to investigate, is one now challenging all states. In fact, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) identified the problem of securing the integrity of drivers' licenses as one of the top 10 issues for 2005 legislative sessions. Protecting privacy generally from emerging technologies like RFID, as well as Internet spyware and fraud, was cited as another top issue.

The fact that many of the 9/11 terrorists held drivers' licenses, some fraudulently issued and some from states with lax issuance standards, already has propelled many states to improve driver's license integrity.

Two issues in particular now dominate the discussion: integrity of license issuance, ensuring that the person receiving a license meets necessary driving competency standards and has a verifiable identity; and verifiability, providing means for law enforcement officials to authenticate the license and identity of the license holder.

A study by the Council of State Governments and the NCSL, Driver's License Integrity, concluded among other things, that drivers' licenses need to have tamper- and counterfeit-proof features, and they need accurate and reliable personal identifiers that are verifiable in real time by appropriate law enforcement officials. Additionally states need to share information about drivers with one another in real time so the information is available to law enforcement nationally. Placing chips on drivers' licenses seems to be one obvious solution that would help accomplish much of this.

RFID tags, which respond to signals sent out by special reader devices, have broadcast ranges of 30 feet or more. This prompted privacy and civil liberties advocates to strongly voice concerns about potential problems with the technology.

"The idea that a chip could be read from a distance is a security nightmare," said Chris Calabrese, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Program, when he testified before the subcommittee. "Personal information including your photograph, home address, date of birth and signature would be available to anyone with a reader. The potential for criminal conduct is staggering."

He and others paint a picture of criminals loitering on street corners stealing identities by remotely gathering personal information from the wallets of passersby. Government agents armed with pocket readers could sweep up the identities of everyone at a political meeting or protest march. And using the tags in conjunction with global positioning systems, government agencies could one day even compile comprehensive pictures of citizens' movements.

The subcommittee, chaired by General Assembly Delegate Kathy Byron, concluded that no immediately proposed legislation should come out of its study, and the issue should go to the Virginia Joint Commission on Technology and Science because it was such a complex and technically difficult topic.

Joe May, chairman of the Virginia General Assembly's House Science and Technology Committee, explained that Virginia takes individual privacy concerns seriously and will proceed slowly on such issues. "Does that mean I don't think there is a place for smart drivers' licenses? Of course not, but we are going to be very careful about what we turn loose on the public at large."

The joint commission, a policy-making group that meets outside the normal legislative session, will conduct a more formal study of smart drivers' licenses that will examine the possible shortcomings and advantages of different technologies, such as RFID tags.

"When the issue was first raised in Virginia with Delegate Byron's subcommittee, a number of privacy people came out and predicted the end of the world," May said. "A number of technology people said, 'You are not proposing to do nearly enough.' It's one of those

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