WASHINGTON – The association representing state drivers licensing boards announced Monday it wants to codify the states' driver identification systems in order to increase domestic security, a move that civil liberties advocates are already criticizing as nothing but a national identification card proposal in disguise.
The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators' task force on ID security said a national plan would, above all, get rid of state-by-state inconsistencies in licenses and allow federal, state and local law enforcement to share cardholders' information.
"The terrorist attack of Sept. 11 brought to light the fact that we in the motor vehicle and law enforcement community have known for some time that the state-issued driver's license is more than a license to drive," said Linda Lewis, CEO and president of AAMVA.
"It is the most widely used domestic document to prove a person's identification."
That is why her group is asking Congress for $100 million to create a system that would allow state departments of transportation to institute standardized licensing procedures, improve their authentication of drivers — possibly with fingerprints or other "biometric" features — and allow massive cross-referencing of information between local, state and federal agencies.
The report released by the group Monday also recommends closer scrutiny of applications from foreign visitors who may be applying for a driver's license with an expired visa.
According to law enforcement experts, there are at least 240 different valid license formats issued by the states today.
Civil liberties advocates acknowledge that the system needs fixing, but says not at the expense of law-abiding citizens' constitutional rights.
"This backdoor national ID would require a massive national database of highly sensitive information available to every [Department of Motor Vehicles] in the country," said Katie Corrigan, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. "This would be ineffective in the fight against terrorism and represent a dangerous threat to our freedoms."
Bob Levy, an analyst with the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., said it isn't hard to imagine the slippery slope. Just look at individual Social Security numbers, he said. Right now they're demanded for much greater uses — like credit card applications and health insurance policies — than for what they were originally designed.
A national license secured by a finger print, "would be maintained by the government and therefore would give to government all sorts of information about your personal, private characteristics — medical, financial, criminal — you name it," he said.
According to AAMVA, the recommendation is a vast improvement on the present system. Currently, each state has a different standard for residency and how licenses are secured. A national license would prevent a person from obtaining several licenses in different states without the driver's previous information being carried over with it. AAMVA's report also says better communication between the agencies will enable law enforcement to catch those people who may be defrauding the system.
After Sept. 11, they may have the backing they need to get such a system. According to a November poll conducted by Harvard University and National Public Radio, 59 percent of respondents said they would approve of national ID cards. No less than 55 percent said the card should include religion, fingerprints, DNA details, and Social Security number along with a photograph.
But Levy said polls aren't accurate or lasting measures.
"I think it's a commentary on how smart the framers were. They didn't create a country run by polls. There are certain rights, like privacy, that 51 percent of the people can't take away just because public opinion has shifted in the heat of the moment."