Virginia lawmakers are considering a futuristic plan to embed computer chips in driver's licenses, making the cards harder to counterfeit by criminals or terrorists and placing the state at the forefront of a national debate about trade-offs between security and privacy.
A panel of legislators vowed Wednesday to continue studying the idea despite warnings from civil liberties groups about the dangers of "electronic pickpocketing" and concerns from Department of Motor Vehicles administrators about the high cost of the technology.
Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Lynchburg), chairman of the joint subcommittee reviewing "smart" driver's licenses, said she believes Virginia must employ every available tool to frustrate people who use licenses to falsify their identities. Several of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists used Virginia identification cards while they planned the attacks.
"We have an obligation as a state to look at the technology that is available," Byron said. "We're in war right now. We're going to still have issues that relate to security -- national and state. We're trying to be a leader."
Advances in technology and miniaturization now allow tiny chips built into plastic cards to carry information that is normally on the card: height, weight, age, Social Security or other identification number. It can also store photos, fingerprints and iris patterns and can link to databases that contain such things as traffic history and criminal records.
Nationally, the same technology is fueling a heated discussion among members of Congress and the intelligence community about whether driver's licenses should become a de facto national identity card that could help in the fight against terrorism.
Efforts already are underway to put computer chips in U.S. passports. The Department of Defense uses cards packed with electronic information to identify employees and contractors as they move through its facilities.
And last week, U.S. Reps. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) and Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) reintroduced legislation to create a pilot program for smart driver's licenses in six states. Similar legislation offered by the pair two years ago failed.
So far, no state has succeeded in moving beyond the traditional paper or plastic license found in millions of wallets and purses. Virginia would be the first in the nation to embrace high technology as a way of preventing forging or altering a driver's license with a home computer.
"If it did that, Virginia would move from the dumbest driver's license system to the smartest in one fell swoop," said Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, noting Virginia's role in providing licenses to the Sept. 11 terrorists.
"I'm a civil libertarian who favors technology," Dershowitz said, adding that privacy concerns are overblown. "We can no longer be [poet Henry David] Thoreau and live anonymously on Walden Pond. Where we strike the appropriate balance is a hard question."
But other civil liberties experts said that cutting-edge technology comes at a price and might not significantly enhance security.
Deirdre Mulligan, director of the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley, noted that the terrorists obtained valid licenses using forged or fraudulent birth certificates and other documents.
"If you don't do a good job in handing out the document to begin with, all the smarts in the world won't help," she said.
Chris Calabrese, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Program, warned the panel against using a specific computer chip that can be read wirelessly from several feet away. Information from the cards is programmed to be read as a person walks through a doorway, he said, but might also be plucked by tech-savvy criminals.
"Identity thieves would never need to physically steal your documents," Calabrese said. "Instead, they would be able to secretly and electronically pickpocket your information right through a wallet, pocket, backpack or purse."
Some businesses have seized on the wireless technology, which is used by Wal-Mart to track inventories, for example. Officials in the Department of Homeland Security say they plan to use it in patrolling borders.
In Virginia, Byron said she is wary of such chips. "I already had my mind made up that I have concerns about that," she said.
Other experts said putting any computer chip in a driver's license could allow government or industry to track a person's movement, purchases, habits and other actions. The more databases the computer chips are linked to, the more access there would be to private information, they said.
"The privacy concerns are real. They are scary," said Judith W. DeCew, a Clark University professor and author of a book on privacy, technology and ethics. "Credit bureaus are a benefit to you, but they also open up the door to people getting a lot of information about you to other people."
Bedford County Sheriff Michael J. Brown, a member of the National Sheriffs' Association, said better security should outweigh the privacy concerns.
"Sure, there are things that need to be tweaked," he said. "I'm here today to say we certainly do endorse and support this move to a smart driver's license."
But Richard Carter, technology director for the national association that represents motor vehicle department administrators and traffic police, said that group was not ready to recommend smart identification cards.
A traditional license costs about $1.50 to make, Carter said, but smart ones can cost as much as $10. In addition, equipment that costs $20 to $150 would have to be installed in every police car, DMV office and government building to scan and read the cards, he said.