Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Virginia lawmakers, hoping to stem identity fraud, are considering whether computer chips that can store personal information should be embedded in the state’s driver’s licenses — a measure civil libertarians say threatens rights to privacy.

“While these chips can have beneficial uses, installing them in driver’s licenses would be a grave mistake,” said Chris Calabrese, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology and Liberty Program.

The technology, called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips, can transmit stored information over several feet. It has been used to link toll-booth speed passes to computerized accounts and has been experimented with to track merchandise and even tag casino chips.

If adopted, Virginia would be the first state to use the chips in driver’s licenses.

Yesterday, Mr. Calabrese testified before a committee of four Virginia delegates and two state senators who have been tasked with studying the issue and offering a recommendation to other lawmakers when the General Assembly meets in January.

Mr. Calabrese said storing such information as a fingerprint, a home address, a date of birth, or a signature could help identity thieves or that the card could be used as a tracking device by anyone with the technology to pick up the radio signals.

“Pocket ID readers could be used by government agents to sweep up the identities of everyone at a political meeting, protest march, or Islamic prayer service,” Mr. Calabrese said. “A network of automated RFID listening posts on the sidewalks and roads could even reveal the location of all people in the U.S. at all times.”

Proponents of the technology argued the computer chips would make it easier for authorities to verify a person’s identity and determine the legitimacy of identification. They refer to findings that seven of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 terrorist attacks had illegally obtained driver’s licenses in Virginia.

In response, Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, introduced the Driver’s License Modernization Act of 2002, which would have required all state motor- vehicle administrations to issue driver’s licenses with the RFID chips. The legislation was never brought to a vote.

Bedford County, Va., Sheriff Mike Brown, who is a board member of the National Sheriffs’ Association which supported the congressional bill, said yesterday he was in favor of adopting the technology in the state.

“In general, we have endorsed the concept,” Sheriff Brown said. “No question smart cards are the future.”

Still, Sheriff Brown admitted to being swayed by arguments that the technology violates privacy rights.

“There is a privacy issue. I understand that,” he said. “There are a number of areas that probably have to be developed a little more.”

Mr. Calabrese said the technology, as it exists now, is undependable and it remains to be seen whether the chips would be durable enough. He also said the identification cards would do nothing to stop the kinds of identity fraud employed by the September 11 hijackers.

“A driver’s license or RFID chip will only display the information placed on them by the Department of Motor Vehicles,” he said. “But if an individual uses a false birth certificate or other ‘feeder document’ to gain a driver’s license, that will simply be reflected in the RFID.”

Delegate Allen W. Dudley, who is one of the committee members, said he is still trying to gather information, but admitted after hearing the arguments that he is skeptical. “From everything we heard today, it sounds like something we’re not ready for,” the Rocky Mount Republican said.

Mr. Dudley said there would be at least one more meeting before the committee produces its report, which is likely months away.

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