Too Smart For Our Own Good

Some Virginia lawmakers want to embed biometric radio frequency identification computer chips—containing personal information such as name, address, and an ID number—in state driver’s licenses. Eventually, these chips could be linked to driving and criminal records or other databases. They also could incorporate biometric identifiers such as fingerprints. The hope is that these "smart" licenses will prevent identity theft and keep terrorists from obtaining official documentation.

However, advocates of smart driver’s licenses—including Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R) and James P. Moran Jr. (D) in the House and Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Lynchburg) in the state General Assembly—have not defined any limits on the personal information that these licenses might include, and that is troubling.

Under the right circumstances, data-mining technologies and biometrics—voice prints; retina, iris and face scanners; digitized fingerprints; even implantable chips—hold promise. Properly deployed, these technologies might improve consumer convenience, service, authentication and individual security, and provide increased protection against identity theft. But the database for a smart driver’s license must be limited.

Already the government has so many compulsory cradle-to-grave databases that the mere act of combining, sorting, sifting and interpreting them may no longer be possible without violating our Fourth Amendment rights. But certainly government databases mandated by specific agencies for specific purposes—such as driver’s licenses, Social Security and tax collection—should not be combined for law enforcement purposes without a specific court order.

We also should avoid mixing public compulsory databases with those amassed through voluntary, routine commercial transactions. People need to know that information they relinquish in commercial transactions is confined to an agreed-upon purpose, not automatically entered into a government database. The Virginia smart-license proposal could cross this line and undermine constitutional safeguards against unreasonable surveillance.

Another concern about smart cards and their attendant databases is that the databases will be targets for hackers who, based on experience, eventually will succeed in breaching the barriers that guard personal data.

New technologies always bring risks. We are wise to look at the effect of surveillance on our civil liberties, on our privacy, on commerce and on homeland security itself.

Smart-card advocates have no right to access our private information without going over the appropriate legal hurdles. Virginia lawmakers should table this proposal for smart driver’s licenses until more safeguards are in place.