View Full Version : Road To Secure U.S. Drivers' Licenses Looks Chaotic

10-10-2005, 07:16 PM
Road to secure US drivers' licenses looks chaotic


By Alan Elsner
Mon Oct 10, 2005 1:29 PM ET

WASHINGTON, Oct 10 (Reuters) - The United States has embarked on a massive effort to create a secure digital driver's license system by early 2008 but some experts warn that the plan may be hugely expensive and lead to chaos.

Congress passed the Real ID Act last May and gave states three years to implement it. It laid out minimum national standards for licenses, which will have to include a digital photo, anti-counterfeiting features and machine-readable technology.

States will have to verify all documents presented to support license applications, such as birth certificates, Social Security cards and utility bills, with the issuing agency, and will be required to link their license databases so they can all be accessed as a single network.

States will also be required to verify that a person applying for a license is in the country legally. They will have the option of issuing a separate credential to illegal aliens so that they will still be able to drive.

All but 11 states now require that drivers licenses be issued only to citizens or legal residents, but many do not verify applicants' identities.

"This law has the potential for huge bureaucratic and technical problems," said Cheye Calvo of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"This law was written by people who didn't take the time to understand how these things are done and didn't even hold any congressional hearings," he said.

Some 227 million people hold drivers' licenses or identity cards given out by U.S. states, which issue or renew about 70 million each year. Around 14 percent of U.S. residents move annually, requiring address updates or new applications.

Supporters say the act was necessary because several of the hijackers who attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, had obtained licenses fraudulently which they then used to board planes.

Beyond that, adherents say the driver's license, which has become the primary means of identification in the United States for travel and commerce, is fundamentally insecure and untrustworthy because of widespread identity theft.

"Today, anyone's identity can be easily compromised," said Bill Willis, a senior vice president of biometric company ImageWare Systems Inc. "Today's ability to ensure a single person has a single identity is broken."

Another Real ID Act requirement is that a person's license and Social Security card must bear the same name, which must be the real name -- not a nickname or shortened version.

But when Alabama recently tried to implement this provision, it had to suspend the effort when thousands of people jammed state offices. Many were also angry when they discovered the state was charging them $18 to make the change.

Nobody yet knows how much the Real ID Act will cost to implement or how much money Congress will provide for it. The state of Washington, which has done the most thorough cost analysis, put the bill in that state alone at $97 million in the first two years and believes it will have to raise the price of a driver's license to $58 from $25.

On the other hand, a secure ID system could save millions in Medicare and Medicaid fraud and combat identity theft.

Right now, states are waiting for the Department of Homeland Security to issue regulations for implementing the law, which will include many details that the legislation itself left blank, including the type of biometric information that each card must include.

But the regulations are not expected to be finalized until next summer at the earliest, which will leave states with precious little time until the May 2008 implementation date.

"There is a concern that some states are not planning for the transformation and will find themselves having to move very hastily," said Brendan Peter, a senior director with Daon Inc., a Virginia-based biometric company.

Calvo of the National Conference of State Legislatures, wonders if the act can be implemented at all. "Whether states will be able to verify so many millions of documents at all, much less in a timely manner, is in question," he said.

Meanwhile, Hispanic groups, immigrant advocacy organizations, civil liberty and privacy groups still hope to derail the act, perhaps through litigation, or by creating a groundswell of opposition that will force Congress to modify or repeal part of the law.

"People are just now beginning to wake up and see what this act means. Every U.S. citizen is going to feel the impact very profoundly," said Michele Waslin of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest grass-roots Hispanic organization.