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About Driver's License Data Encoding Techniques and Driver's License Swiping:
Who is Swiping? | Is Swiping Happening in my State? | How do ID Card Technologies Work? | What Information is Encoded on Drivers' Licenses? | Is this Legal? | What Will Future Drivers' Licenses in the U.S. Look Like?

General Data Collection Issues, Policies, and Practices in the U.S.:
Data Collection Explosion in the U.S. | Social Security Number | Commercial Data Warehouses | Total/Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) Program | CAPPS II | PATRIOT Act

Suggested Reading:
Books | Articles

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Who is Swiping?

The police for one. When you are pulled over for speeding on the interstate, for instance, a state trooper will ask for your driver's license and swipe it through a scanner. Usually this happens inside the police car. The data on your license is instantly cross-referenced with other databases to find out, for example, if you have a past record of driving offenses or a criminal record of any kind.

Businesses are also using driver's license scanning equipment. The first businesses to start swiping were bars and convenience stores. They are doing this in the name of age verification and fraud detection. Businesses many times do not ask for consent from their customers—or even bother to notify them—before swiping a card. In most states it is legal to scan licenses and upload the data to a customer database for future analysis and use.

Cigarette companies are also using driver's license scanners for commercial benefit as part of promotional campaigns. Companies like R J Reynolds will send a young person equipped with a license scanner and free cigarettes into a popular bar on a weekend night. The company gives 1-2 packages of cigarettes to bar goers in exchange for a swipe of their driver's license.

Other places installing license scanning equipment are airports, hospitals, and federal buildings.

One business owner about swiping: "It's not really so much the research in figuring out why you should do it," Thomas said. "The law says you have to do age verification. And so long as you have to do it, you might as well get all of the side benefits you can...".


Article in The New York Times about Driver's License Scanning

Why a Tobacco Store Wants to Scan

Ohio's Policy on Driver's License Scanning

Is Swiping Happening in my State?

It is a state by state decision whether to encode data on drivers' licenses or not. Over 40 states currently use the magnetic strip or 2D barcode technology to encode data on state-issued drivers' licenses.

It is also a state choice to regulate driver's license swiping or—in more instances—not regulate. Only in New Hampshire and Texas are businesses not allowed to save data scanned from drivers' licenses. It is illegal in all states for businesses to sell data collected from drivers' licenses. These are the only restrictions we have found thus far concerning businesses who swipe driver's license data.


AAMVA State-by-State Break Down of Data Encoding Technologies Currently in Use

Positive Access's State-by-State Break Down of Data Encoding Technologies Currently in Use

Intelli-Check Inc. Jursidication Map of US Describing Where Driver's License Scanning is Legal (PDF)

NJ Group Resists Digital Driver's License

How do ID Card Technologies Work?

Magnetic Strip Technology: A magnetic stripe on a driver's license is the dark, solid stripe across the top back of the license. It is encoded by a machine that places magnetic fields of data on up to three tracks. This is the originally technology used to store data on drivers' licenses. Magnetic strips can not hold as much data as the 2D barcode and has no security or encryption capabilities to prevent tampering.

2D Barcode: The 2D barcode stores data along two dimensions and is therefore capable of containing much more information than the 1D barcode (seen on many food products) and the magnetic stripe. In most states the 2D barcodes are in a specific 2D format known as PDF 417. Data can be encrypted on 2D barcodes unlike the magnetic strip.

Specifically 2D barcodes can hold about 2,000 bytes of data, or enough to encode a small mug shot of a person. Currently 39 states use 2D barcode on drivers' licenses; the US military does as well. Nine states and the District of Columbia also store some form of biometric information on the bar code, such as a person's fingerprint.

Smart Cards: A few states, including Delaware and South Carolina, are considering using smart cards for drivers' licenses. Smart cards have a computer chip embedded in the plastic card that can store many times more personal information than either a magnetic strip or a 2D barcode. Smart card drivers' licenses have not yet been issued in any state but are recommended by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) and the Driver's License Modernization Act of 2002.


About the Technologies from Positive Access

Why a Tobacco Store Wants to Scan

Ohio's Policy on Driver's License Scanning

What Information is Encoded on Drivers' Licenses?

We don't exactly know since there are over 200 state-issued drivers' licenses currently in circulation and not a lot of available documentation.

We have developed our own list based on SWIPE Toolkit usage. As more people use our Toolkit Decode Barcode feature, the more comprehensive and up-to-date this list becomes.

Data that currently is stored on some states drivers' licenses:
Second Address
Date of Birth
Eye Color
Hair Color
Social Security Number
Organ Donor Info
Medical Indicators
Alias Name, Address, Date of Birth or Social Security Number
Electronic Image of Your Signature
Your Electronic Photo Image (KY)
Digital Fingerprints (DC, GA, HI)
Facial Recognition Template (TN)


SWIPE-Compiled List of Information Encoded on US and Canadian Licenses

State-by-State Analysis of Current Driver's License Laws and Requirements

Is this Legal?

Driver's license swiping is a relatively new phenomenon and has yet to be challenged in court.

There is, however, a privacy law called the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994 (DPPA) that could be used to contest driver's license swiping. Congress passed DPPA in 1994 after the murder of actress Rebecca Shaeffer. Her assailant had gotten her address from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The public was outraged over the fact that state DMVs were not only releasing their database information (driver's license records), but also making major profits by selling this information. New York, for example, earned $17 million in one year selling drivers' records, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

DPPA put an end to this, well almost. DPPA requires that all states protect the privacy of personal information contained in an individual's motor vehicle record, but this privacy act (like most privacy acts) is extremely weakened by a number of exceptions. And here are some of the exceptions: an individual's driver's license information may be obtained from the department of motor vehicles for legitimate government agency functions, for Motor vehicle market research and surveys, for use by licensed private investigators, and for legitimate business needs in transactions initiated by the individual to verify accuracy of personal information.

Businesses who swipe will most likely will say they are protected by this last clause: that swiping is a legitimate business need to verify age and validate a driver's license. But is creating a database from the swiped information for future use and profit a necessity to verify the accuracy of personal information?

We'd say no.


Driver's License Privacy Protection Act of 1994

More About DPPA from EPIC

Acceptable Uses of Driver's License Information Outlined by DPPA
What Will Future Drivers' Licenses in the U.S. Look Like?

Since 1991 The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) has been pushing the federal government to standardize state driver's licenses. This plan includes a comprehensive system for data encoding and a centralized database for personal information.

In May 2002, Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Tom Davis, R-Va. introduced a new bill called Driver's License Modernization Act of 2002 (HR 4633) that endorses the AAMVA approach.

The Driver's License Modernization Act of 2002 Overview:
  • States have up to five years to switch to "smart card" drivers' licenses that hold much more data than magnetic strips or 2D barcodes
  • Your driver's license would include a biometric identifier such as a digital fingerprint or eye scan and would be readable by an electronic scanner
  • States must maintain interconnected databases containing information on license holders
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has expressed sincere interest in this Bill.

What could a U.S. driver's license look like in the not too far future.


American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators

Driver's License Modernization Act of 2002 (HR 4633)

About the Driver's License Modernization Act of 2002 (HR 4633)

Status of HR 4633

About National ID Cards from EPIC

ACLU's National ID Card Page

The New National I.D. Card Is In Your Wallet

Data Collection Explosion in the U.S.

The current trend in the U.S. is to collect all data on all people. What exactly does this mean? With the increase in data processing speeds and data storage capacities and with the decrease in computer costs, the government and businesses are collecting more and more information on individuals resulting in a "collect it if you can" mentality. Furthermore, with computer networking and the internet, information is shared, sold, integrated and filtered with great ease and speed.

A striking example of the data collection explosion in the U.S. is the development of government-issued birth certificates. In 1925 14 bits of data were collected on a newborn before s/he left the hospital, but in 1999 the total is 226.

It is important to note how data collection starts the moment we take our first breathes. It is also important to realize this change from 1925 to 1999 is not only in quantity but quality. In 1925 a birth certificate was a piece of paper that was filed and archived. If you wanted access to that certificate you would physically go to a specified place, talk to a specific person and only then perhaps given access to a piece of paper. In 1999 the certificate is in database ready format (digital) and you can access it over the phone or the Internet. You receive the information in database format that can be easily parsed, filtered and merged with other data.

Lastly, what you see here is not the total data picture. We have been told by medical specialists that with the information in a birth certificate you can put some data pieces together to determine if the mother ever had an abortion before. With so much data a trained person can read between the lines and make deductions that are not immediately apparent to the average person.


Information Explosion by Latanya Sweeney

Birth Certificate Data Collected in 1925 versus 1999

Social Security Numbers

When data is generated or collected for a specific purpose it is more often than not later used for a second, third or fourth purpose.

An example of this in the US is the Social Security number. In 1935 when Social Security was invented, President Roosevelt was adamant that the number generated for Social Security was not to be used for anything but administering social benefits. He felt so strongly about this that the original SS cards had printed in red "This card is not to be used for Identification." Today US citizens can't open a bank account, purchase a cell phone or enroll in a college class without giving over a social security number. It has become the most relied upon, and therefore most useful, identification number in the US.


What to do when they ask for your Social Security Number?

History and Significance of the Social Security Number

National Id Cards

Commercial Data Warehouses

A data warehouse is a repository of integrated information, available for queries and analysis. Data and information are extracted from different sources and consolidated in order to enable more efficient queries across data and produce the most descriptive results.

ChoicePoint (CP) is the biggest data warehouse or commercial supplier of personal data to federal agencies. The FBI, Department of Justice, and IRS all have multi-million dollar accounts with CP. CP has 10 billion records and contracts with 35 federal agencies to share data with them. CP collects data from public records and combines that with information from private detectives, the media, and credit reporting firms. The data is indexed by Social Security numbers and CP claims that if you have a credit card, CP has your in their database.

Why, you might ask yourself, do government agencies purchase information from private companies in the first place? The Privacy Act of 1974 places restrictions on the collection, use and dissemination of personal information by government agencies, but places no limitations on the private sector. Therefore, government agencies have begun to rely on the huge databases that are freely maintained by private companies in order to retrieve information.

But how accurate is this information? And is anybody overseeing or regulating the data warehouse industry?

Let's go back to CP, the largest supplier of personal data to the Federal Government. In January 2002, a New York Jury awarded $450,000 in damages to an individual who lost a job opportunity because his profile created by CP contained a false criminal conviction. In that case, the judge found that CP either intentionally maintained substandard procedures for verifying accuracy of data or should have known that its procedures were substandard under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Obabueki v. IBM, 145 F. Supp. 2d 371 (2002).

CP also made the news the year before during the infamous 2000 election when it gave Florida officials a list with the names of 8,000 ex-felons to "scrub" from their list of voters. It turned out none on the list were guilty of felonies, only misdemeanors and should have been eligible to vote. The company acknowledged the error, and blamed it on the original source of the list -- the state of Texas. A close examination suggests thousands of voters may have lost their right to vote based on a flaw-ridden list.

U.S. PIRG's recent study on credit reports found that 70 percent contained errors and 29 percent were the result of reporting credit accounts that belonged to another consumer. When mistakes are found, individuals are faced with the nearly impossible task of tracing the source of the error and rectifying the error across numerous databases. Substantial amounts of time, money and knowledge are needed to complete this tedious task.

The U.S. government has primarily taken a "hands-off" stance, granting self-regulation to the industry. Self-regulation has produced the Fair Information Practice Principles and the now defunct IRSG. These self-regulatory agreements give individuals access to information for verification purposes but no effective right to opt-out.



FBI and ChoicePoint Relationship

Smith's FBI File

ChoicePoint and the 2000 Election

ChoicePoint and Latin America

Privacy Act of 1974

Hearing on Data Mining: Current Applications and Future Possibilities

EPIC's Consumer Profiling Page

U.S. PIRG Consumer Report Study

Fair Information Practice Principles

CDT's Take on FIP

IRSG's Old Homepage
Total/Terrorism Information Awareness

In January 2003, Admiral John Poindexter (of Iran-Contra fame) returned to the government to take charge of the Office of Information Awareness. This office is responsible for developing new surveillance technologies such as Total Information Awareness (TIA). The aim of the program is to provide intelligence analysts and law enforcement officials with instant access to information from Internet mail and calling records to credit card and banking transactions and travel documents, without a search warrant. Historically, military and intelligence agencies have not been permitted to spy on Americans without extraordinary legal authorization. But Admiral Poindexter has argued that the government needs broad new powers to process, store and mine billions of minute details of electronic life in the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In May 2003, Congress, after tremendous public pressure, slowed down the TIA plan until further investigations on its affect on civil liberties. At this time the Office of Information Awareness decided to change the name of its program from Total Information Awareness to Terrorism Information Awareness hoping to persuade U.S. citizens that only "others" would be targeted.

In September 2003, House and Senate negotiators agreed to close down the terrorism surveillance system at DARPA. They also agreed that no money should be spent to use the TIA's high-tech spying tools under development against Americans on U.S. soil. The software, however, can be used to gather intelligence from U.S. citizens abroad and foreigners in this country and abroad. Some people contend that DARPA's TIA research has been moved to ARDA's "Novel Intelligence from Massive Data" (NIMD) program.


DARPA's Office of Information Awareness

TIA web site

Defense Tries to Save TIA

New York Times Article about TIA

Old TIA Documents

GIA: The Inverse of TIA

Eyeballing TIA


CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System) is a data-driven system that electronically absorbs every passenger reservation, authenticates the identity of each traveler and creates their profile. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is pressing to implement this program on all commercial flights originating in the U.S. Passengers would be required when making their reservations to provide identifying information like name and address, plus passport, Social Security and frequent flyer numbers. Those details are then used by private data services (such as ChoicePoint) to supply more information about the individual. The end result: each traveler would be assignment a Threat Assessment Color. In this system green means fly freely, yellow means extra security checks and red means not allowed to fly.

Delta Airline was rumored to be the first commercial airline to test the CAPPSII system starting in April 2003. Some have decided to boycott Delta in response.


CAPPS II and the Department of Homeland Security

Boycott Delta

CAPPS II Back from the Dead

[From the Electronic Frontier Foundation]

On October 26, 2001, President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act (USAPA) into law. With this law new powers are granted to both domestic law enforcement and international intelligence agencies. It also eliminated the checks and balances of judicial review. Most of these checks and balances were put into place after previous misuse of surveillance powers by these agencies, including the revelation in 1974 that the FBI and foreign intelligence agencies had spied on over 10,000 U.S. citizens, including Martin Luther King.

Of particular interest to us is Section 210 and 212, the amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). PATRIOT Section 210 expands the records that can be sought without a court order to include: records of session times and durations, temporarily assigned network addresses, and means and source of payments, including any credit card or bank account number.

For more information on this amendment and the Patriot Act in general, see this document. It provides explanation and some analysis to the sections of the bill relating to online activities and surveillance. (Other sections, including those devoted to money laundering, immigration and providing for the victims of terrorism, are not discussed in this document.)


EFF Analysis of the PATRIOT Act

The PATRIOT Act in Full

Suggested Reading

Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Digital Discrimination Edited by David Lyon

The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society by David Lyon

Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday Life by David Lyon

Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape Edited by Philip E. Agre and Marc Rotenberg

Silencing Political Dissent: How Post-September 11 Anti-Terrorism Measures Threaten our Civil Liberties by Nancy Chang

Privacy and Power: Computer Databases and Metaphors for Information Privacy by Daniel Solove

Datamining and Domestic Security: Connecting the Dots to Make Sense of Data by K. A. Taipale

Identity and Anonymity: Some Conceptual Distinctions and Issues for Research by Gary T. Marx

Legitimate business interest. No end in sight? By Oscar Gandy

What Larry Doesn't Get: Fair Information Practices and the Architecture of Privacy by Marc Rotenberg