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Burn Your License

By Annalee Newitz

DURING THE Vietnam War, people protested the draft and U.S. policy in Vietnam by burning draft cards. It was a symbolic gesture—a way of refusing to be counted as a citizen willing to fight a morally dubious battle, a way to avoid becoming a statistic in the graveyards of the Cold War.

As of last week, we have a new card to burn. And this time around, women and men can do it together as long as they don't mind the smell of melting plastic and silicon. I'm talking about the new drivers' licenses and ID cards ushered into existence by the passage last week of Rep. James Sensenbrenner's Real ID Act.

This law, which zoomed through the House and Senate without debate by piggybacking on an appropriations bill, mandates that all licenses include a digital photo, as well as "machine-readable technology with defined minimum data elements." In other words: Your license will include some kind of tech—probably a magnetic stripe or RFID chip—containing all your personal information.

Because there will be national standards for how this information can be stored, it appears that anyone will be able to acquire readers for them. You can expect machines to start reading your cards in bars, buildings, state parks, taxicabs and stores. Say your local bar owner decides to get high-tech and install a mag-stripe reader so that the bouncers don't have to look at IDs when people shuffle in the door. When you slide your card through the reader, a lot more than your age will be revealed.

Although the Department of Homeland Security has yet to decide what the "minimum data elements" on the card will be, it seems likely that they will include at least the information currently visible on your card: name, age, address, biometrics, possibly more. If that local bar owner chooses, he can store your information in a database and sell it to a large data company, such as Acxiom or ChoicePoint, which is looking to sell marketers a list of people who drink alcohol in urban areas.

Why is this creepy, aside from the idea that going to a bar may mean that you get spam about drinking Guinness? Well, suddenly a lot more businesses and other entities will be collecting your personal information in not-very-secure databases. That leaves you much more vulnerable to identity theft and fraud.

And there's more. The databasing doesn't just stop with your local bar. Of course, the DHS wants to use these cards to create a massive electronic warehouse with everybody's names and information—a warehouse whose contents they will disclose to Canada and Mexico too. Basically, it will become a citizen-tracking machine if they can ever get it together to make state and federal databases talk to each other.

Part of the law does require state DMVs to open their databases to the DHS if they want to continue receiving federal funding, thus potentially creating a vast repository of everybody's photographs, associated with their names, locations and driving records.

This is just the latest step in the strange metamorphosis that our licenses have undergone over the past several decades. Originally issued as simple licenses demonstrating the holder's ability behind the wheel, the driver's license has gradually become a de facto identity-authentication card. We use them to prove who we are when we write checks, join video rental stores and board airplanes.

Drivers' licenses and IDs issued under the Real ID act will reflect the true status of licenses as national ID cards by requiring people to show four (!!) forms of ID to get them, including Social Security cards, immigration papers and birth certificates (images of which will be kept on file in the electronic-identity warehouse). As anti-ID activist Bill Scannell points out on his website (UnRealID.com), abusing the license in this way means that the roads will become more dangerous.

Someone with an uneasy immigration status might drive without training rather than face the scrutiny required to get a license under Real ID. Plus, everyone is required to put their true addresses on the cards, meaning that law enforcement, undercover agents and judges will be forced to hand out their addresses every time they swipe their cards. This policy, Scannell says, leads to "dead cops." I'm not sure how true that is, but he certainly raises a good point for anyone concerned about stalkers or bad guys chasing them down with guns in hand.

In California, many civil liberties groups have been pushing a state bill, SB 682, that would limit the state's ability to issue IDs with RFID chips in them. Because one of the main ways that cows are tracked in the Golden State is with RFID chips shot into their ears, many privacy activists have said these IDs would turn humans into cattle. And now DHS proposes to do the same thing on a national level. I just can't wait to be herded into the giant factory farm of electronic identification—can you?

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who welcomes ideas about environmentally safe ways to dispose of plastic-and-silicon cards.

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From the May 18-24, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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