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In less than three years, as many as nine states and municipalities have implemented biometric technology in their driver's licensing programs and those actions may be steps toward a U.S. national identification card.

Last year, Minnesota became the most recent state to unveil a driver's license that contains embedded visible and covert features to thwart identity thieves. Most noticeable is a floating image that appears to rise and sink as the card is tilted. Among the overt changes is a micro-printed background, fine lines across the photo and the state seal that can only be seen in ultraviolet light. Details of some stealthy features, like digital watermarking, are known only to certain law enforcement and state agencies in support of homeland security efforts.

Others using identity verification technology are Connecticut's Department of Motor Vehicles, the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles, Georgia's Department of Motor Vehicles, Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration, Mississippi's Motor Vehicle Commission and Wisconsin's Division of Motor Vehicles.

These actions come just seven years after West Virginia became the first state to implement advanced biometric technology to reduce driver's license forgeries and counterfeits. In that pre-9/11 era, West Virginia implemented leading-edge facial recognition technology as a security measure, according to a story in Advanced Imaging, "Polaroid & Quebec Vision Start-Up Commercialize Robust Face Recognition" (Feb. 1998, pp. 72-73). Everyone applying for a West Virginia operator's license had a digital image taken and stored in a central repository. When an applicant tried to renew or obtain a duplicate, a second picture was taken, analyzed and compared against the previous image. West Virginia's digitized driver's license, by today's standards, would be acknowledged not only for its anti-fraud benefit but also as a screening and identity theft deterrent instrument.

RECENT ACTIONS TAKEN BY SEVERAL STATES In 2003, faced with hundreds of people trying to acquire a phony driver's license, Colorado augmented its identification process. Now, besides being photographed, all applicants are fingerprinted. The Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles no longer produces licenses on the spot. If the application is approved, the license arrives by mail in about one week.

In New Jersey, license renewal by mail has been discontinued; everybody must show up in person. At all of New Jersey's Motor Vehicle Commission offices, an undercover officer conducts surveillance by CCTV of anyone walking into a driver's license facility. Before entering a service line, a state employee checks two forms of qualifying identification. If a license is issued, a barcode on the reverse can be scanned electronically by police to verify the holder's identity. That is one of 22 collateral features built into the redesigned card.

Another state that may implement this technology is North Carolina. According to Americans for Legal Immigration (Raleigh), a political action group, North Carolina is a magnet for illegal immigrants seeking driver's licenses under false pretenses.

George Tatum, commissioner of North Carolina's Division of Motor Vehicles, says the state is ramping up protective measures and that it is a leader in installing facial comparison technology. Nevertheless, North Carolina remains one of ten states that do not routinely ask first-time applicants for explicit documentation of their legal presence in this country.

The measures and procedures that have been implemented at the state and municipal level represent a move forward in realizing a national identification card. Ultimately, such a card could replace all existing state-level drivers' licenses with the underlying digital content -- images, biometrics and text -- stored in a centralized government database.

A challenge to a countrywide identification initiative is to ensure the accuracy of the information used to construct supporting databases. Currently, more than 200 million driver's licenses are dispensed by the independent bureaus of 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Each jurisdiction maintains its own database, but all but two share information about "problem drivers" through a national registry interchange.

In addition to safeguarding data, uniform technology standards are vital to a domestic identification system. If every state continues employing its own methods to store and grant access to information, that could undermine a national biometrically enhanced program. Remember, too, that Americans long have depended on a driver's license as proof of their identity. How to keep the private sector abreast of the requisite hardware, technologies and consents for data access is significant and, as yet, undetermined.

Last October, President Bush signed the U.S. Patriot Act's Anti-Terrorism Bill, which was aimed at improving U.S. intelligence-gathering operations. The bill directs the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation to meet with the states' governors and motor vehicle administrators and formulate a single design standard for driver's licenses.

This could be a further step toward the national identification card. Proponents of a national ID say that standardization would reduce fraud and thwart terrorism. However, the legislation did not address the relative ease of obtaining a license, which is voluntary, optional and issued to both citizens and non-citizens. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (Arlington, VA) noted that the al-Qaeda terrorists relied on driver's licenses -- whether obtained legally or otherwise -- to fabricate their U.S. identities.

Perhaps we should be more concerned with an international identification system? At a United Nations (New York) meeting late last year, that idea was proposed. The plan would mandate fingerprinting every person in the world and logging the information into a universal scheme. To what extent a U.S. or worldwide identification plan is used and abused is still an open question.