Will driver’s licenses turn into national ID cards? (image courtesy: Popular Science)

WASHINGTON – The House Republican leadership’s new bill to restructure the nation’s intelligence bureaucracy would turn driver’s licenses issued by the 50 states into a de facto national ID card, say privacy activists.

The House bill, set for committee markups this week, is expected to be merged with a Senate version and voted on before the Nov. 2 election.

But among the little-known provisions of the “9/11 Recommendations Implementation Act” are new requirements for state driver’s licenses that have very little to do with driving, say critics.

According to the legislation, within three years of its enactment, no federal agency may accept for any official purpose a driver’s license or identification card issued by a state that does not require applicants to provide Social Security number and “facial imaging capture.”

Washington would also require all states to share digital data acquired in the process of licensing to other states.

A blogger site committed to fighting a national ID calls the plan a “backdoor creation of a National ID” that “has been the in the works for a few years now, even prior to events of September 11.”

“This seems marginally better than the ID provisions McCain-Lieberman bill in the Senate, in that it is not explicitly part of a biometric checkpoint system,” wrote the privacy activists of Libertythink.com. “But the highlighted text suggests facial biometrics nonetheless. And the linking of all the databases is troublesome.”

The issue of national standards for driver’s licenses and other documents was taken up by the 9/11 Commission and by the McCain-Lieberman bill introduced earlier this month in the Senate. Both urge sweeping reforms, such as mandated federal standards for license formats.

Privacy experts say that national standards that require states to add a fingerprint or other biometric data to driver’s licenses might effectively create a national ID card.

The House bill also immediately ran into partisan opposition last Friday when it was introduced.

“Instead of acting in a bipartisan manner, the Republican leadership is introducing a bill, written behind closed doors, that attempts to score partisan points and goes far outside the recommendations of the 9/11 commission,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. “Unbelievably, the Republicans claim to have introduced a bipartisan bill, as Senate leaders have done. It is simply not true.”

No bill number was available and even the full text was not released until yesterday.

Driver’s licenses are not the only form of identification changing. Next year, both U.S. passports and foreign visitor passports will be issued with a special computer chip woven into the cover. The chip will include a photograph of the traveler, and face-recognition technology will be used to make sure the passport presenter is the same as the person who applied for the document.

That seems to be what the House bill is requiring for driver’s licenses of the future, too.

This change will be gradual in the United States. All new passports will include the chip by next year, but those holding valid passports won’t be required to upgrade until their current ones expire.

On the other hand, citizens of countries in the U.S. visa waiver program, such as Britain and Spain, will have to arrive on U.S. shores with a biometric chip in their passport beginning in October of next year. Congress has already extended that deadline from the initial October 2004 date mandated in a 2002 law.

Facial-recognition programs, however, are notoriously inaccurate, with some studies suggesting error rates as high as 50 percent. Simple changes in lighting, or beard growth, can foil it.

Similar legislation was pushed during the Clinton administration but was rebuffed by privacy activists.

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