A License Too Broad?

The outcome of New York's driver's license battle may be decided by technology, not politics.

New York's Governor Eliot Spitzer is waging a battle to implement the "most secure" driver's license in history, against some heavy opposition. But concerns about the technology rather than immigration and political snafus could become its ultimate undoing.

Working in concert with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, an old friend from his law school days, Spitzer is proposing a license system that would both comply with two federal mandates – the Real ID Act and The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative–and document the million or so immigrants currently residing "in the shadows" in New York.

However, in his zeal to create a secure system, New York's governor is proposing the use of technology – RFID (radio-frequency identification) and facial biometric scans – that not only goes beyond DHS recommendations for complying with Real ID and WHTI but employs the very technology that has privacy and security advocates up in arms and state legislators across the country mutinying against Real ID.

Thirty-eight states have in fact banded together to fight against Real ID, 17 of which have opted out through legislative action.

Spitzer's plan calls for three separate licenses for New York residents, based almost entirely on their level of travel outside of New York.

"Our solution is to bring people out of the shadows and into the license system, while at the same time, implementing the strictest measures in the nation to make sure the process is not abused," Spitzer said in a speech at New York University School of Law on Oct. 19.

Three separate licenses would be issued: one state license for all citizens – immigrants or not; one that would comply with Real ID and grant access to federal buildings, nuclear plants and commercial aircraft; and a third that would comply with WHTI aimed at allowing Canadian and other contiguous border crossings.

Immigrants (including illegals) would be eligible for the "basic" license, but only legal immigrants would be eligible for the Real ID- or WHTI-compliant licenses.

The RFID component of Spitzer's plan is what has privacy advocates up in arms, who argue that it is less secure than two-dimensional barcode technology.

"If you're going to use a wireless technology [such as RFID], it's not what you use if you want security," said Melissa Ngo, director of the Identification and Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in Washington. Ngo added that Chertoff has said he wants the Real ID to do double and triple duty, and that's precisely the fear of many opponents–that the Real ID would turn into a national identification card.

Missouri Rep. Jim Guest, who formed the coalition of states opposing Real ID, told eWEEK in an interview in February that The Real ID Act "is a direct frontal assault on the freedom of citizens when [the federal government] wants us to carry a national ID."

The Real ID Act, passed in 2005 as a rider to a military spending bill, is designed to suss out suspected terrorists who apply for a drivers' license by requiring more stringent documentation requirements and more sharing of information between states.

It requires that states digitize documentation, such as passports, birth certificates, and proof of home address, that citizens must produce to get their licenses, and store information in a database that can be linked with all databases from other states.

Real ID also requires states to add machine-readable technology to their drivers' licenses that carries data and, when activated with a reader, transmits the data. After first calling for the use of RFID, the DHS has since backed down and allows the use of two-dimensional technology, while encouraging the use of RFID.

Spitzer's plan goes beyond this and includes the use of biometrics, giving opponents a technological argument to go along with the political.

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates against Real ID, called it, "the worst kind of RFID you can use. EPC [electronic product code] technology used in enhanced drivers' license was never intended for people, it was intended for goods because of low frequency, long-read ranges."

"At the end of the day, [Spitzer's actions] could have some effect on other states," Tien said. "It makes [Real ID] look better."

Check out eWEEK.com's Enterprise Applications Center for the latest news, reviews and analysis about productivity and business solutions.