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New plans are in store for an old number

(Page 2 of 2)

National standards for licenses, to be set by the federal Department of Homeland Security, are expected to be dramatically strengthened. Applications are likely to require several forms of identification, and information on the cards will be linked between states and the federal government. Life without one of these beefed-up licenses could be difficult: They'll be needed to board an airplane, visit any federal facility, or, in all likelihood, receive any federal services.

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The act will "help to ensure that every driver is who they say they are," says Jason King, a spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. The measure also makes traffic in fraudulent ID credentials a federal crime.

Privacy experts, however, are concerned that the act requires that the cards contain a "common machine-readable technology" - and that's where privacy and data theft issues may arise, they say. This technology could be a simple magnetic strip, bar code, or computer chip, which would allow information to be collected from the card at a distance of several feet.

Merchants, for example, might ask for the cards as a form of identification and then electronically collect the data off of them - name, birth date, ID number, photo, and perhaps more. Once a business has the data, it's "totally unrestricted what they can do with it," Gellman says.

The ACLU is urging Homeland Security to make privacy a high priority as it works out the specifics for the new driver's licenses, Sparapani says.

While state licenses are quietly on their way to becoming a de facto national ID card in the United States, both Britain and Australia are engaging in lively public debates on whether to introduce national identity cards. No Western democracy has instituted such cards for many decades, says Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International in London. The idea of national ID cards has "started to see a public backlash" in Britain as people learn more about it, he says.

"The institution of a national ID card raises fundamental questions about the relationship of power between the citizen and the government," he says.

In order to prevent identity theft and other misuse, such cards would need to have strong security controls, perhaps requiring a scan of a person's fingerprints or irises. "I can't see taxpaying Americans allowing themselves to be iris-scanned for an identity card," Mr. Davies says.

In a report to the British government in June, researchers at the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science said that both identity theft and national security might be better addressed by other means than through national identity cards, such as by giving individuals more control over who sees their personal information or by strengthening border patrols and supplying more funds for police investigations.

Current ID technologies are "untested and unreliable," the report said. An ID card, it concluded, "should be regarded as a potential danger to the public interest and to the legal rights of individuals."