- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

Two Northern Virginia congressmen want state driver's licenses to include a computer chip with the owner's fingerprint or eye scan, hoping it will deter the kind of identity fraud that costs victims millions of dollars a year and that also aided the September 11 hijackers.

Eight of the 19 hijackers had driver's licenses fraudulently obtained in Virginia, and Rep. James P. Moran, a Democrat, and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Republican, say legislation they introduced yesterday to require "smart" driver's licenses with embedded computer cards can help prevent future fraud.

"We think that what happened on September 11 makes a compelling case to do it now," Mr. Moran said.

But privacy advocates worry the cards will lead to national identity cards, especially since the bill's backers acknowledge the computer chips will be built so card holders can store much more than a fingerprint.

"It's a proposal for a national ID, and it will do little, if anything, to address the three stated goals of limiting licensure fraud, preventing underage drinking and limiting identity theft," said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel at the D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Under the bill, states would have five years to begin issuing licenses with computer chips. The chips would store "biometric" data either a fingerprint or retinal scan. A business or government agency that wanted to check the card-holder's identity could take a reading from the person and compare it with the image on the chip.

States would have to store a different biometric piece of data most likely a face print in a database. Someone trying to get new identification would be checked by the system. If he was found to have been registered anywhere nationwide under another name, or if someone else was found to be already registered as that person, officials would investigate.

Backers said that will cut down on someone obtaining a card in another person's name. They also say the card isn't federally issued, isn't mandatory and doesn't link to federal databases, so it isn't a national ID.

But Stephen H. Holden, an assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a member of a National Academy of Sciences committee examining nationwide identity systems, said since states would link their databases, the proposal meets their definition of a nationwide identity system.

"As I understand it, the bill certainly holds the potential to create a system that meets that standard," he said. That doesn't mean the project is inherently bad, he said, but the committee's interim report, released last month, argued that any national ID must prove there is a very compelling state interest.

It's not clear how far the legislation will go. President Bush has said a national ID card is out of the question, and Mr. Moran said he and Mr. Davis don't have any commitment to force action on the bill this year.

Still, some groups are favoring the bill. Jack Martin, special projects director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the federation isn't wedded to the computer chip, but the overall bill incorporates many of the changes it has been seeking.

"These are all necessary for security purposes to control against the possibility of terrorists being able to get licenses like they did in the September 11 case, and in that case they had multiple driver's licenses, which would not be possible if the Moran bill went through," he said.

But Mr. Hoofnagle said the card won't solve another problem exposed by September 11 the ability to falsify the documents someone needs to provide to get identification.

"In order to get ID you have to provide ID, so a national ID is only as good as its breeder documents," he said.

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