Safety... At What Cost?

Driver's Licenses Could Serve as National IDs


By Jason Pierce
November 20, 2001

While federal lawmakers kick around the idea of making national IDs mandatory for every U.S. citizen and legal immigrant, some states are already taking steps to use the most common form of identification among Americans, the driver's license, for that very purpose.

There is also a push to link state Department of Motor Vehicles databases, which would allow officials to access information about anyone in any state at any time.

"You don't need a new national identifier. We already have one: your state-issued driver's license," said Jason King, spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. "Although it was created to be a license to drive, it has become much more."

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, states have begun to search for ways of tightening security. Several have opted for tightening the standards by which they issue licenses, and are considering a new generation of licenses that would include biometric information, such as fingerprinting information or retinal scans implanted in microchips.

The changes are aimed at a system historically plagued by security problems. For instance, until recently, women in Florida wearing traditional Muslim veils hiding everything except their eyes could be photographed for a driver's license, while in North Carolina, strict Muslims could refuse a photograph for religious reasons.

Now, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and New Jersey have steps in place to tighten the rules for getting licenses, especially for foreign nationals.

Immigrants in several states are being routed to special Department of Motor Vehicles offices where officials can thoroughly inspect the authenticity of identification documents. Some states are issuing licenses that expire when the applicant's visa expires, and requiring that every licensee be photographed.

George Getz, spokesman for the Libertarian Party, said the changes being implemented are leading to de facto national IDs. However, such a program would be ineffective in reducing the terrorist threat.

"Terrorists have the ability to get people into this country, to train them at flight schools and simultaneously crash four jetliners, and they don't have the ability to make a fake ID? Come on," Getz said. "Just like other security measures, terrorists will be able to circumvent it. They are going to be able to create fraudulent IDs."

Getz added that since terrorists would likely skirt the law to make illegal IDs, law-abiding citizens would bear the entire burden for such a system.

"There is no doubt about it, the only ones who are going to suffer are ordinary Americans," Getz said. "So again, this is another measure that will impact the innocent without affecting the guilty.

"Americans should not have to live in a country where the police can stop you and say, 'Your papers please,'" he said.

Katie Corrigan, legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed, saying a nationwide information-sharing system linked to driver's licenses would do more to invade privacy than improve security.

"A national ID of any form, whether it is done at the state level through driver's licenses, or if Congress works for the national ID through the federal level, it would not strengthen security and would undermine fundamental values around privacy and equality," Corrigan said. "An identification card... doesn't tell you who the person really is and even if it did properly identify who the person is, it wouldn't tell you anything about their motive or criminal intent."

Robert Sanchez, spokesman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said there should be no worry about the increased restrictions on the driver's licenses leading to a more formal national ID system.

"There is no doubt that driver licenses are the form of identification in widest use," Sanchez said. "They contain a photograph, hook up to a databank of information, and the initial obtaining of a driver's license is supposed to involve procedures to check... to make sure you are really you.

"But whether this is becoming a de facto national ID card, I would leave that judgment to others," he said.


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