Lawmakers want biometrics for state IDs

But privacy advocates say the use of retinal scans and fingerprints for driver's licenses and state-issued ID cards is just another step toward a national ID system.

Margaret Kane Former Staff writer, CNET News
Margaret is a former news editor for CNET News, based in the Boston bureau.
Margaret Kane
3 min read
A bill introduced in the House of Representatives on Wednesday would require states to include biometric features such as retinal scans or fingerprints on encrypted microchips in driver's licenses and state-issued ID cards.

The Driver's License Modernization Act, sponsored by Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Tom Davis, R-Va., would give states five years to conform to a new nationwide standard for licenses.

"We all know that today, fake driver's licenses are so common that they are almost considered a rite of passage for American teenagers," Moran said in a statement.

"As long as possession of a valid driver's license is taken as unquestionable proof of identity for the distribution of other important documents--like passports, Social Security cards and employee ID cards--the lack of uniform standards and a unique biometric identifier for state-issued driver's licenses will remain a problem," Moran said.

The co-sponsors of the bill also pointed to the fact that eight of the Sept. 11 hijackers held fake driver's licenses.

The bill would require state motor vehicle departments to link their databases, allowing states to verify records electronically. It also authorizes $315 million for the implementation of the standards and for linking software.

Five states--Texas, California, Hawaii, Oklahoma and Georgia--either require or are in the process of requiring fingerprints to obtain driver's licenses. The bill does not specify what biometric measure would be required, but it does authorize the states, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), the General Services Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to come up with a set of guidelines for the states within six months of the bill's passage.

Since Sept. 11, there have been several proposals to set up some form of national ID system--proposals that have been met with stern opposition from privacy advocates.

"We think (the bill introduced Wednesday) would more appropriately be called the National ID Act of 2002," said Katie Corrigan, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the measure.

The bill would "establish an identification system that the vast majority of Americans would rely on and create an ID that would be required in all sorts of circumstances, whether interacting with state and local governments or trying to sign up for private benefits," Corrigan said. "This ID would be required at every turn in an individual's daily life. It would not just threaten privacy rights but really undermine basic freedom."

The ACLU, the Eagle Forum and more than 30 other organizations recently sent a letter to President Bush opposing a proposal by the AAMVA to standardize state driver's licenses, calling it an attempt to "create a national identification system through the bureaucratic back door of state driver's licenses."

But backers of the Moran bill counter that it simply clears up widely varying state laws and say the bill has protections to ensure privacy rights are not violated. The bill would make it a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison to illegally access data carried on the cards.

"This bill does not create a national ID card in any sense," said Shane Ham, a senior analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington research center. What it does do, he said, "is fix a driver's license system that is so broke" that fake ID cards are extremely widespread, and address concerns in a country where identity theft is one of the chief complaints by consumers to the Federal Trade Commission.