Anti-terrorism law's demands for driver's licenses stirs privacy vs. security debate.
That plastic card, the one with the lousy photo that's jammed into your wallet or purse, isn't just a license to drive. It's the green light to buy a drink, the ticket to federal benefits, the must-have document to get aboard airplanes.
Now it's also the flash point for an argument about how best to balance America's security needs with worries that personal privacy could be swept away.
The federal intelligence overhaul that became law last month -- while creating a new national intelligence director and beefing up border patrols -- also aims to close loopholes for identity fraud that some of the Sept. 11 terrorists used to get aboard the jets they hijacked.
Privacy advocates warn that the new federal standards for driver's licenses will effectively create a national ID card, centralizing information that can be misused -- by letting the government track the whereabouts of innocent people, for instance. Government officials say they're just making the cards more secure, and that the worries are overblown.
"There is a strong sense of protection of privacy by all of the administrators of DMV records, because we know the value of the information we've been entrusted with," said George Tatum, North Carolina's Department of Motor Vehicle commissioner. "We just want you to be who you say you are."
The small provision in the massive intelligence overhaul doesn't take effect immediately. It requires a year-and-a-half of deliberation by state and federal officials, and others.
States can opt out -- refuse to make changes to their driver's licenses that will be required under the federal law -- but then the licenses would be useless for any federal purpose, from getting benefits to boarding an airplane guarded by federal screeners.
The intelligence law aims to standardize the documents drivers present to get a license, the ways DMV workers verify that those documents are authentic, the information included on a license and the steps authorities take to ensure licenses can't be forged. The law also requires that licenses can be read by machines.
In years past, the market for fake driver's licenses was driven by teenagers hoping to get into a nightclub or repeat drunken drivers, who lost their licenses trying to get back on the road. Now, identity theft is a bigger problem, and terrorists a bigger fear.
Many of the law's specifics have yet to be decided. Will licenses include biometric information like fingerprints or retinal scans? Will "machine-readable" mean bar codes or radio frequency identification systems -- in which a tiny computer chip transmits data and can theoretically be used to track location?
Some state groups, including the National Conference of State Legislatures, opposed the proposals to have the federal government take control of what has traditionally been solely under states' control -- though states have already been moving ahead to tighten the licensing process.
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