Driver's license bills: Reduce speed ahead

Privacy among <@SM>concerns that may put legislation in slow lane

Both houses of Congress are working on legislation that would tighten security loopholes in the way states issue driver's licenses, but the bills may have a hard time passing this year because of concerns about privacy.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., this month plans to introduce the Driver's License Integrity Act of 2002 and is looking for a cosponsor to the bill, said Jenni Engebretsen, Durbin's press secretary.

A House companion bill, the Driver's License Modernization Act of 2002, addresses security concerns related to the way driver's licenses are issued. It was introduced earlier this year by Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Tom Davis, R-Va.

Privacy advocates from both sides of the political spectrum are strongly opposed to linking state databases. They fear it would lead to the creation of a national identification system that might be misused by government and susceptible to attack by computer hackers.

The Davis-Moran bill, according to Robert Atkinson, vice president and director of the New Economy and Technology Project of the Progressive Policy Institute of Washington, has helped shift the debate from a "focus on the specter of a national ID card to how to modernize the state drivers' license system."

While there is little chance the House bill will pass this year, the introduction of a companion Senate bill has raised the hopes of those who would like to see improvements to the licensing process, he said.

"We're encouraged by the bipartisan support the bill enjoys in the House," said Austin Durrer, a spokesman for Moran. Davis' cosponsorship of the bill may mean the House's Republican leadership is willing to vote on the bill or a similar version re-introduced next year, he said. If the bills do not pass this year, they would have to be brought up again next year by members of the 108th Congress.

Both bills, which would establish a grant program to be administered by the Transportation Department, could produce millions of dollars for information technology projects with state motor vehicle departments, according to analysts and industry officials.

The House bill authorizes $315 million in grants over five years to the states to establish smart-card technology for driver's licenses and to link state motor vehicle databases. Grants also would fund pilot programs to study how smart cards could hold information that would allow driver's licenses to be used with other government services, such as food stamps and voter registration.

The House bill would require states to insert a biometric feature in driver's licenses, participate in a program linking state motor vehicle databases, and implement procedures to document the identity of individuals applying for driver's licenses.

"There's a tremendous business opportunity here for information technology companies," said Shane Ham, a PPI Technology and New Economy senior policy analyst.

Lawmakers supporting the bills said they are not trying to establish a national identification system, but simply trying to make driver's licenses more uniform, authentic and credible.

The funding in the Senate bill has not yet been determined but is expected to be nearly the same as the House bill, Engebretsen said. Durbin would prefer to allocate funds annually rather than designate a figure upfront that could be taken as a funding cap, she said.

Because of the powerful lobby against these bills, private industry needs to become involved to see the legislation passed, Ham said.

The process of issuing state driver's licenses received congressional attention last year when it was learned many of the Sept. 11 hijackers either obtained fake licenses or received licenses issued under false pretenses. The licenses enabled them to move freely about the country before they hijacked the planes used to attack New York and Washington.

States have not been idle on the issue. Twenty-one states have enacted driver's license security legislation in the past year, and legislation has been introduced in 22 other states, according to the National Council of State Legislatures of Washington.

State officials cite these efforts as proof they can make improvements without involving the federal government. They do not rule out federal cooperation and grant assistance, but believe the states should lead the improvement efforts.

Holli Ploog, vice president and managing principal in Global Public Sector programs at Unisys Corp., Blue Bell, Pa., said the company is tracking the legislation and has worked closely with groups representing the states.

Unisys has implemented driver's license solutions for motor vehicle departments in about 10 states and foreign countries, said Lisa Meyer, a company spokeswoman.

In addition to providing grants to develop uniform standards for issuing driver's licenses and standards for increasing the security of the cards themselves, the Senate bill would also require states to adopt internal auditing and anti-fraud measures.

"If you only have smart cards and aren't fixing other things that are endemic to the [driver's license] process, then you haven't fixed much else," said Barry Goleman, vice president of state and local solutions for Fairfax, Va.-based American Management Systems Inc.'s public safety and transportation group, a company that also has taken an active interest in the legislation.

A national system linking state motor vehicle databases might cost $150 million to $200 million, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators of Arlington, Va. If the system incorporated biometrics, the price estimate increases to at least $400 million, according to the group.

Such a program does not require establishing a new, national database but would rely on existing state motor vehicle databases, the group said. The system would direct queries from officials in one state to another state.

"Nobody is talking about federalizing the process [or] taking the process away from the states," Goleman said. "They are talking about helping the states." *

Staff Writer William Welsh can be reached at wwelsh@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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