Updated: 03:38 PM EST
Legislation Sets Stage for Uniform Driver's Licenses
By Donna Leinwand, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The anti-terrorism bill to be signed by President Bush on Friday opens the door for people across the nation to have similar driver's licenses, a plan that is fueling a debate over whether security concerns will lead to what amounts to a national identification card.
Officials say the plan would reduce counterfeiting. Shown here are fake New Jersey ID cards.
The bill, which largely is aimed at improving the nation's intelligence-gathering operations, instructs the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation to meet with the nation's governors and state motor vehicle administrators to set uniform security standards for driver's licenses within 18 months.
Such measures could include difficult-to-duplicate holograms, encrypted magnetic strips and other embedded security features. A few states have begun including such features on licenses; Minnesota unveiled a license this month that includes a digital "watermark" and fine lines that are visible only under ultraviolet light.
The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, a Virginia-based group that represents administrators in all 50 states, has long called for standardization of licenses, in part because of the ease with which criminals, illegal immigrants, alcohol-seeking teenagers and others have been able to produce and obtain fake licenses.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks made licensing a national security issue by putting a spotlight on how foreigners seeking to harm the United States could fraudulently obtain licenses. Several of the suicide hijackers got driver's licenses legally, but scrutiny of the hijackers' activities showed, among other things, that they knew licenses could be obtained with little documentation.
Civil liberties groups and other critics say the move by Congress to standardize information on driver's licenses and force states to adopt tough anti-fraud measures is the first step toward a system that could encroach on privacy rights.
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The American Civil Liberties Union says that such licenses could give the government a way to have citizens carry cards that eventually could be used to reveal a range of private information, including where people go and what they do.
"It's just a matter of time and (the government's) own discretion about what kind of data that could be contained on that ID card," says Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America, another group critical of national licenses. "How much of a fish bowl will the average American be living in?"
Pratt's organization joined with the ACLU in buying a newspaper ad opposing the measure before it was passed by Congress this month. He says he worries that the government might link databases of gun ownership to driver's licenses.
Although Congress' chief intent is to prevent fraud, its bill sets up a structure for a national ID card, ACLU attorney Marv Johnson says.
He worries that advances in technology would allow the U.S. government to install radio frequency chips in driver's licenses that would allow information on the licenses to be accessed by readers several feet away.
Initial legislation in the U.S. House would have linked federal databases to driver's licenses, Johnson says. "Now you've made it easier to keep track of people," he says. "It's a fairly frightening scenario. We've never been a country in which you've had to show your papers."
The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators in Arlington, Va., has promoted national standards for years to try to help states prevent document fraud and fake IDs, spokesman Jason King says.
"We don't want someone shopping around for a state with the weakest driver's license practices," King said. "All this means is that we're building a more credible ID. The bottom line is, the sky is not falling."
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The 9/11 Commission, the independent panel that made recommendations to Congress on ways to prevent future terrorist attacks, urged the government to take steps to halt ID fraud, says Leslie Phillips, spokeswoman for Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who co-authored the original bill.
"In no way is (the bill) intended (to create) a national ID," Phillips says. "This applies only to drivers. The point is to ensure the identity of the person using the identification card. ... We are trying to balance the rights of the citizens and the need for the country to crack down on terrorists."
She notes that the bill would not have prevented the 9/11 terrorists from getting driver's licenses. The terrorists obtained licenses legally, using valid documents, Phillips says. She says Congress hopes the bill will deter terrorists from making fake IDs or using aliases.
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