WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government is working with the states to develop a new generation of drivers' licenses that could be checked anywhere and would contain electronically stored information such as fingerprints for the country's 184 million licensed drivers.
Privacy experts fear the effort may lead to national identification cards that would allow authorities to track citizens electronically, a backdoor way to establish federal ID cards despite strong opposition from many Americans.
Supporters said it was predictable after Sept. 11, and after a briefly raucous debate over U.S. identity cards, that officials would turn to improving existing identification systems. With careful use, they say, these new licenses could alert authorities to an attempt by a suspected terrorist to board an airliner, withdraw cash or enter the country.
Under instructions from Congress, the Transportation Department is expected to develop rules for states to encode data onto drivers' licenses to prevent criminals from using them as false identification. Under a national standard, a license from California could be verified and recorded using equipment in Texas or Florida.
In a report accompanying spending legislation, Congress told the department it would strongly encourage officials there to develop guides quickly with states for electronically storing information on licenses. ``This could benefit the nation's efforts to improve security,'' lawmakers wrote, and could cut down on financial fraud and underage drinking.
Transportation officials told The Associated Press the department's new security administration probably will take charge of the project, still in its early stages. Already, 37 states store information on licenses electronically, often using bar codes or magnetic stripes, but few are known to have included fingerprints or imprints of retinal- or facial-scans. Georgia, for example, includes a digital thumbprint on its licenses.
``What you're seeing here is sort of a hardening of the driver's license that could lead to development of a national ID system without creating a national ID card,'' said Marc Rotenberg, head of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.
``If they start scanning these things, they can track where I go,'' said Richard Smith, former chief technology officer for the Privacy Foundation, an advocacy organization in Denver. ``If we do this, come up with a national standard, there's no difference between a driver's license and a national ID card.''
Nathan Root, standards director for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, said, ``When you look at the expense of improving what we have already versus implementing a new national ID document, the hassle and expense just don't compare.'' He said, ``It would be a better idea just to work with what we have.''
The association, based in Arlington, Va., has already developed detailed guides for storing information on licenses. Its current rules do not require states to include biometric data, such as fingerprints or retinal scans, but that could change. ``It was not practical, not before Sept. 11,'' Root said. ``It wasn't popular to include anything like that.''
The association represents all the state motor vehicle agencies in the United States and Canada and counts as associate members the U.S. and Mexican governments.
Privacy experts said a broadly adopted new standard for machines to check state ID cards could allow authorities easily to track citizens nationwide, using state licenses people already carry.
``The debate after Sept. 11 showed that Americans are instinctively suspicious of a single federally issued card, but they might be more sympathetic to identifications issued by businesses or perhaps states,'' said Jeffrey Rosen, a leading privacy expert and associate law professor at George Washington University.
Even supporters admit the impact of a national tracking network could be significant, especially if groups as diverse as retailers, sports stadiums, banks and movie theaters begin to demand ID checks using licenses.
``They're giving these systems too much credit in even assuming that somebody would be able and interested to track everybody's whereabouts and doings,'' Root said. He said, however, that critics' warnings ``aren't totally without merit. There should be some controls placed, some kind of accountability.''