Lawmakers and government agencies are pushing for "smart" driver's licenses to reduce identity fraud in the wake of Sept. 11. But many fear this will lead to virtual national identity cards that could infringe upon the private rights of citizens.
Proposals to make identification more difficult to duplicate have gained more support since investigators discovered some of the hijackers of the planes that crashed into the WTC and the Pentagon had used fraudulent identification.
Bills are already being created on Capitol Hill. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin in the Senate and Virginia Democrat Jim Moran in the House are preparing bills that would provide funding to update and standardize drivers' licenses. Moran's proposal would also provide funding for states to develop smart-card capabilities. Congress has also directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a set of standards on its own.
Some measures being given serious consideration for drivers' license identification include standardized applications, digitized retinal or handprint scans, and wider access to drivers' records.
National standardization of these additions to drivers' licenses could make forgery nearly impossible and enable authorities to more easily catch criminals who cross state lines.
Already in use in eight states and the District of Columbia, biometric identifiers encode a body part such as a fingerprint or retina to establish what proponents say is ''unforgeable'' proof of identity.
State and federal authorities such as the FBI would also be able to easily link their records under the proposals made by the Association of American Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA). This would allow a police officer in Florida, for example, to call up the criminal record of someone stopped with a Michigan driver's license.
But the system could also encourage crimes like identity theft by making personal records more readily available, said EPIC's Rotenberg.
States are only looking to boost the effectiveness of the current system, said a spokesman for the AAMVA. Private businesses, such as airlines, could use the biometric data to verify identity, but not to tap into the underlying databases.