U.S. needs smarter driver's licenses

Outside editorial

Posted: Thursday, December 20, 2001

This editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

From the day that three hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many security experts and members of Congress have urged that the United States develop a national identification system.

The idea of a universal card loaded with, or linked to, intimate information like financial and medical histories and criminal records rightly sends chills up the spines of millions of Americans. A more palatable solution is to beef up driver's licenses - making them similar from state to state and embedding a computer chip that would let police compare the cardholder's thumbprint with the digital print on the card as well as with a limited national database.

This certain identification would both enhance national security and deter identity theft, which the FBI says is the fastest-growing crime in the United States. It's also a step that most people should be able to accept without fearing loss of basic rights.

Critics will still see it as the camel's nose under the tent. It will be up to Congress and the voters to draw the line on how much data is enough.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is now working with computer security experts at the Justice Department and the General Services Administration to create a national system to link all state driver databases to high-tech driver's license cards with computer chips, bar codes and biometric identifiers, perhaps thumbprints.

Such "smart cards" would not have rooted out all the terrorists who planned the Sept. 11 attacks, of course, but they would have made some of their identity fraud more difficult. It's believed that at least a dozen of the 19 terrorists made up or appropriated driver's license and Social Security numbers and then used them for false identification. Smart cards could have curtailed this, for example by allowing security officials at private airports or ticket agents at commercial airports to scan and match the thumbprints of the individuals before them.

Proponents of a more formal national ID card system, like Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz, argue that smart cards should be linked to vast storehouses of personal data. Such a sweeping cross-checking system, Dershowitz argues, might be necessary to allow airline ticket agents to spot a person who has overstayed a tourist visa or landed on a government watch list or for whom an arrest warrant has been issued. However, there is little political desire to implement such an ambitious system, one that would be all too open to error, abuse or outright theft. The driver's license proposal offers a politically feasible compromise. The card itself would carry less information than credit card companies already have about each of us. But by making it easier to authenticate identity, the license would make forgeries and fraud more difficult. The idea of a national ID card probably would be impossible to sell, politically, but an enhanced system using motorist records could help curb crimes including terrorism.

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