Hand over your license, surrender your identity
(Reading Eagle (PA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) May 3--It happens in the blink of an eye.
The cashier or bartender takes your driver's license and swipes it through an electronic reader to verify your age.
Immediately your name, address, Social Security number and other personal information is entered into a computer.
There it can be loaded onto a disc and printed out, stored for marketing research, placed on a mailinglistor soldto data brokers.
Beyond the potential for invasion of privacy is the risk for fraud, privacy experts warn.
Presenting your license can be required to buy some over-the-counter cold medicine in a drugstore, pay with a check at a supermarket or enter a nightclub.
Because there are no federal or state laws barring license information from being retained and shared, that quick swipe can lead to trouble for consumers, said Tim Sparapani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's an enormous loophole and there is an extraordinary potential for misuse," he said. "Storing this information electronically makes it much easier for thieves to access."
Cases of fraud related to driver's license data are common, he said.
But neither the state attorney general's office nor the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation knew of any such cases in the state.
The purpose of encoding information on the backs of driver's licenses is to help police officials check the validity of the license and to gather data quickly at a crime or accident scene, officials said.
All 50 states encode licenses. Pennsylvania has been doing so since 1994, storing the same data encrypted on the back of the license as is printed on the front, other than the driver's photograph.
Pennsylvania State Police, who have electronic readers to check the validity of licenses, soon will be able to enter the encoded information directly into their in-car computers, said Lt. Adam Kisthardt, technology coordinator for the state police.
The information will load onto citations or other forms, speeding up paperwork and freeing up troopers, he said.
At least one municipal police department in Berks County has card readers.
Spring Township police obtained two machines through a grant and gave one of the readers to police services at the Penn State Berks campus.
"We have a large problem with underage drinking parties from the off-campus houses, so we use it a lot to make sure students are of legal age and have valid IDs," Spring Chief Michael S. Messner said.
Most privacy advocates agree that police should have quick access to certain information, but they believe there should be more rules about who else can use that data, and how.
License readers can be bought by anyone for less than $50.
The more widely that information is shared, the more vulnerable it is, Sparapani said.
"A driver's license is onestop shopping for identity thieves," he said.
PennDOT opposes the use of license information for marketing or data brokering, spokeswoman Claudine Battisti said.
"We certainly object to taking this information for one purpose and using it for another," she said.
The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, a nonprofit professional organization, opposes the use of license data for anything other than verifying ages or identities, spokesman Jason King said.
"When that information is being used outside the realm of an ID check, there are certainly opportunities for the violation of privacy," he said. "When you hand over your license willingly, you should realize you are also handing over your information."
Many drivers aren't even aware their licenses contain encoded information, according to a quick and informal survey of Berks residents leaving the driver's licensing center in Cumru Township.
Luella J. Mack of Muhlenberg Township said she hates the idea of businesses collecting her Social Security number and other information.
"I would hope they wouldn't be storing it or using it for other reasons," she said. "I hope they keep it private."
The Reading nightclub 1402 has been scanning licenses since it opened in 2001, and the technology is invaluable in keeping out underage drinkers with altered drivers licenses, manager Mike Sfameni said.
The club used to create a mailing list from the names it scanned but stopped, in part because some customers complained, Sfameni said.
"I had some questions about the ethics of it," he said.
The 3rd & Spruce Cafe in West Reading temporarily records the names of those whose licenses it scans for security reasons but doesn't form a customer database, owner John Woodward said.
"People would think of that as being Big Brotherly and I understand that," he said. "That would be a little invasive."
Contact reporter Mike Urban at 610-371-5023 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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