A layered approach

New driver's licenses and ID cards face many security threats

Despite an $11 billion price tag and the availability of new security technologies, the millions of new driver's licenses that states will need to produce to comply with the Real ID Act may still be vulnerable to counterfeiting and tampering, industry experts say.

Recent emphasis in the government identification card field has been on high-tech security features, such as encryption of data on the microchip embedded in the cards. But the Real ID Act cards that now exist may present greater low-tech risks.

As with current driver's licenses, there is no single foolproof protection against swapping photo images on the cards. "The picture can be replaced," said Jack Kantak, senior vice president at Vanguard Research Inc., a federal contractor in Arlington, Va. "You can delaminate the card, cut out the photo, replace it and relaminate it. It's a darn shame."

Layering of multiple security features, such as holographs and digital watermarks, is expected to minimize the risk of counterfeiting but cannot completely eliminate it.

Under current plans, states are expected to deploy several layered security features in Real ID, although no single feature or particular set of features is specifically required. With a variety of card formats and features to be implemented in the field, there is concern that police in one state will not be able to spot special watermarks or determine the validity of holographs on Real ID licenses from other states.

For example, if a state deploys ultraviolet ink images, which are invisible until scanned by special devices, other states may not be able to acquire a sufficient number of scanners and train their employees to validate those driver's licenses.
Most license validations presumably will occur by a visual inspection. If a card appears authentic on cursory review, how many states would perform additional validations, such as scanning a card with a UV light detector, to verify other states' security measures? Not many, said Joe Wright, sales director at Identisys Inc., an Eden Prarie, Minn., manufacturer of card technologies.

"How are you supposed to know if a card is valid in another state?" Wright asked. "How can you expect Ohio to know what Maryland did?"

Matter of Protection

The challenges with photo image integrity also extend to government identification cards to be issued under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, Kantak and others say.

"Give me six minutes with a personal computer, a lamination machine, a digital image and some data," Kantak said. "Is that easy enough?"

Still, the HSPD-12 ID cards have other protections. Those cards also will contain a microchip with encrypted biometric data, which are strong security features for validating the card. Even if the photo is replaced, the biometric information on the chip will remain intact and will confirm the identity of the original holder.

But Real ID Act licenses will not include microchips. Under the Homeland Security Department's February Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Real ID Licenses, they will have machine-readable bar codes, but it has not yet been determined whether those bar codes will be encrypted. To protect the physical integrity of the card and image, DHS recommended that states adopt technologies ? such as digital watermarking or use of a superimposed holographic image ? to minimize the risk of tampering. The final rule has not yet been published.

"Raising the security standards on driver's licenses establishes another layer of protection to prevent terrorists from obtaining and using fake documents to plan or carry out an attack," DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said in announcing the proposed rulemaking.

Several industry experts and groups support DHS' approach.

The Document Security Alliance, a group of industry executives involved in security for government documents, advised the department to require that states follow recommendations by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators to impose two or three layers of physical security to protect the card. Those layers should include visible features, such as holographs; covert features, such as markings that can be read only under UV light; and forensic features that track changes to the card, the alliance said.

The layering of all three types of security features "makes it much more difficult to illegally reproduce those identity documents," said Kathleen Phillips, executive director of the alliance.

However, a sophisticated counterfeiter can find ways to duplicate a holograph or a watermark, she said.

The issue of multiple jurisdictions complicates matters, she said. If police in one state don't know how to judge the authenticity of a holograph on a card issued in another state, use of fraudulent cards still will be possible.

"With the Real ID Act, DHS has taken the right steps in exploring what technologies are available for physical security. But they didn't require the states to conform" to a common standard, Wright said.

Increased Visibility

Industry observers expect Real ID to give greater visibility to the new technologies that promise to reduce those risks.

For example, Digimarc Corp., of Beaverton, Ore., which produces driver's licenses in several states and has a contract with Washington state to produce hybrid license-border crossing cards with DHS, has developed a way to digitally encode information directly into the photographic image on the card in a special algorithm format. The encoded information is invisible to the eye and must be read with a special device.

"A counterfeiter cannot replicate the data that is encoded in the photo," said Andy Mallinger, senior director of product management at Digimarc. "It is an extra layer of security."

Similarly, Kantak is marketing a proprietary holograph technology with metallic materials that may be used to form a permanent background on a photographic image. Produced by Diverse Security Technologies Inc., of Virginia Beach, Va., Kantak and company officials say the metallized holograph is counterfeit-proof. Clients include the Colorado State Police, which is using it on ID badges.

Nonetheless, it is presumed that any single technology eventually can be overcome or replicated with passable results because of advances in production of inexpensive equipment to copy and laminate printed materials. "The reality is that there are several ways card security can be defeated," Phillips said. "Layering security measures is a way of reducing the risks."

For example, even if a holograph is not duplicated exactly, a counterfeiter can probably create a version that passes a brief visual inspection, she said. And as for metallized holographic photo backgrounds ? which Kantak said are impossible to replicate and are bonded to the card at a molecular level ? Phillips suggested that creating a metallic background that looks like a holograph may be possible with artistic skills. "You can do amazing things with nail polish and glitter," she said.

Staff writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@1105govinfo.com.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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