Drivers’ Licenses and Protection of Citizens’ Personal Identity

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Driver’s licenses are the most widely accepted form of identification in the country and are used in a wide range of everyday activities like banking, renting cars and apartments, and getting utilities turned on. Counterfeit driver’s licenses are a major concern. Several of the hijackers on September 11th carried illegally obtained licenses and the most common reasons for creating a fake license or falsely obtaining a license are to provide phony proof that the bearer is 21 years of age or to defraud someone about the bearer’s true identity.

Under-age Drinking

Few think of driver’s licenses or the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) as having a role in the issue of under-age drinking. But by eliminating fake licenses used for identification, the Commonwealth could realize significant savings both financially and in terms of the damage under-age drinking does to society. In Massachusetts:

  • the direct cost of underage drinking is over $400 million per year 
  • when indirect costs are added in, the number rose to $1.4 billion for 2001 
  • fetal alcohol syndrome alone costs taxpayers more than $14 million per year.

None of this takes the human cost into account. The Centers for Disease Control estimate the annual number of under-age deaths due to excessive alcohol use at 4,554 and alcohol kills more young people than all other illicit drugs combined.

Identity Theft

Phony identification is at the heart of the growing problem of identity theft. According to the Consumer Sentinel, there were 3,634 victims of identity theft in Massachusetts in 2003 and the crime cost the Commonwealth’s consumers more than $5 million. And cases of identity theft are rising sharply. Nationwide, they increased from just over 82,000 in 2001 to almost 215,000 in 2003.

Victims usually don’t realize their identity has been stolen until months or even a year or more have passed, and they can spend precious more time repairing their credit, closing bogus accounts, and perhaps even avoiding punishment for crimes they didn’t commit.

Secure Driver’s Licenses

In November 2004, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles began producing a new license that is almost impossible to copy. Because of the new security features, wrongdoers are likely to target other states whose licenses are easier to counterfeit.

Partnering with Digimarc, a Massachusetts company that is a national leader in license and identification cards, Massachusetts became the first state to incorporate document security technology that is not commercially available in its driver’s licenses.

After data and portrait images are printed, each license has a layered security laminate bonded onto the front and back. Ultraviolet inks that can only be seen under ultraviolet light are imbedded within the security laminate.

Each license has two different barcodes layered under the security laminate. The new licenses also have machine-readable digital watermarks containing both security data and unique identification information.

Licenses now feature a fainter second picture with the holder’s date of birth printed over it. Birth dates are printed in two other places on the license; counterfeiters are more likely to overlook changing all three.

The licenses have subtle, high-resolution lines pre-printed throughout the card, making it difficult to substitute a different picture. The new background design also makes it easier for retailers and law enforcement to detect tampering without special equipment. All under-21 licenses are printed vertically and feature bold red lettering, making it easy for liquor establishments to differentiate them from other licenses.

The Massachusetts RMV has cooperated with the federal government to take steps that enhance domestic security. No commercial licenses are issued until the driver has passed a federal Security Threat Assessment, and social security numbers are no longer on licenses unless the license holder makes a written request that the number appear on the card.

By utilizing the latest technology, the Massachusetts RMV has created a driver’s license that is virtually counterfeit-proof. The new license will have positive public policy impacts far beyond the functions normally associated with the Registry.

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