Security of Vermont’s Enhanced Drivers’ License Questioned

By | November 6, 2007

The technology planned for an enhanced drivers’ license system that will allow Vermonters to return to the United States from Canada without a passport is insecure and a threat to privacy, according to some computer security experts and civil liberties proponents.

Vermont plans to begin issuing the licenses next fall.

But the radio frequency identification chips to be used in them were designed to monitor shipments of cargo, not people, critics say.

The cards transmit a signal containing a unique identification number of the license holder up to 30 feet, and can be read by commercially available equipment.

“If you were standing in a supermarket and 50 people had Vermont drivers’ licenses with the border-crossing technology in it, you could wave a reader in the middle of the room and pickup a whole bunch of numbers,” said Randy Vanderhoff, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance, a trade group pushing for what he says is an alternative, more secure technology already in use in U.S. passports.

But Vanderhoff couldn’t point to any specific potential misuses of the technology.

“I’m tapping into the emotion of those people who are sensitive to their rights to privacy,” Vanderhoff said. “Do you mind that someone can electronically monitor your whereabouts for whatever reason they may chose to?”

Vermont Motor Vehicles Commissioner Bonnie Rutledge said the chips in the enhanced licenses won’t contain any personal information, and would be of no use to a third party. The number will allow the Department of Homeland Security computer that reads the card to retrieve information about the individual from a state database.

To allay concerns the cards could be read somewhere other than a border post, the state is planning to issue special sleeves that will prevent the card from being read except when the holder takes it out when approaching the border, Rutledge said.

“I hear (the security concerns) from various people, but nobody can substantiate what people can do with it,” Rutledge said. “I don’t want to dismiss their concerns. Everybody has concerns. I listen to those as well… I think the benefits outweigh the concerns.”

She said she hadn’t heard many concerns from the general public about the security of the licenses. “I’ve gotten tons of calls from the public wanting to get this,” Rutledge said.

But U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a proponent of keeping the northern border as accessible as possible, said the federal plans for the border were “plagued by muddled thinking (and) poor planning.”

“Security and privacy are mere afterthoughts to them with the technology they want to use for identity cards,” said Leahy, D-Vt. “They are unilaterally moving forward with an insecure technology that makes more sense for cargo than it does for people.”

But Paul Rosenzweig, the deputy assistant secretary for policy at Homeland Security, said the technology was meant to make crossing the border as effortless _ and secure _ as possible. The technology has been used for years in other border-crossing systems.

“The whole idea behind this is we don’t want to clog the border,” Rosenzweig said.

The technology being implemented would allow a Customs and Border Protection agent to have the photo and personal information of a crosser on the screen by the time a car pulls up to the booth.

“We will be reducing the linger time substantially, on the order of seconds. For thousands of trips a day, seconds matter,” Rosenzweig said.

In September, Gov. Jim Douglas signed an agreement with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff under which Vermont will become the second state to develop and issue the enhanced drivers’ licenses.

The licenses would be acceptable identification when people seek to return to the United Stated by land from Canada or Mexico. The program grew out of concerns that new passport requirements being imposed by Homeland Security next summer would bog down cross-border traffic.

The state of Washington is due to begin issuing the enhanced licenses in January. The state expects to issue about 300,000 the first year, said Gigi Zenk, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Licensing.

Zenk said she’d received a few calls from people who had privacy concerns about the enhanced licenses. Like Vermont, Washington is going to issue sleeves that will block the reading of the cards away from the border.

“If you’re worried about it, I’d suggest keeping it in the sleeve,” Zenk said. “It’s a voluntary program.”

Arizona and New York are also going to participate in the program.

“People always think that new technology, just by definition, provides better security,” said Allen Gilbert, the executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “That is very often not the case. It might lessen security because it creates a honey pot of information. If identity thieves or terrorists have access to it, it would give them a free ticket to go anywhere.”

Vanderhoff and others argue a better system would be to use the technology used in passports. The chips must be within a few inches of the reader and they transmit encrypted personal information.

The Smart Card Alliance is a New Jersey-based nonprofit group that represents the industry, including businesses that produce the electronic technology used in passports, the enhanced driver’s licenses as well as organizations that use the technology.

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