Here's a creepy thought -- or not, depending on your point of view.
The Virginia state legislature (along with other states and, naturally, the federal government) is exploring the idea of "smart" driver's licenses equipped with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. RFID goes a couple of steps beyond so-called "biometric" licenses or National IDs -- which are encrypted with a piece of extremely personal information that's used to definitively identify you, such as a fingerprint, retinal scan, or DNA profile. An RFID driver's license/national ID would, in addition, contain a chip capable of receiving and sending information in "real time" -- communicating with scanners and even hand-held devices with ranges of 30 feet or more.
Personal information -- including who you are, where you live, your DMV record -- could be "read" at a distance by any person with the right scanning equipment (though in theory only law enforcement personnel would have access to these devices). The amount of information that could be stored, updated, and transmitted is virtually limitless, given the storage capacity of chips already on the market. Literally everything about you -- including "profiles" developed by marketers, big business, and government about your likes, dislikes, political views and so on -- could be easily and constantly tracked.
It would, arguably, be the end of privacy as we know it.
The pressure to impose such controls on Americans has its source in the 9/11 attacks and concerns about the porousness of the exisiting system, in which it's not hard to acquire a viable fake ID, whether you're a teenager looking for a way to skirt drinking laws -- or a terrorist trying to slip unnoticed into the country.
A study by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the Council of State Governments concluded that "driver's licenses need to have tamper and counterfeit-proof features, and they need accurate and reliable personal identifiers that are verifiable in real time by appropriate law enforcement officials." Placing chips on driver's licenses "seems to be one obvious solution that would help accomplish much of this," wrote Blake Harris in the Feb. '05 issue of Government Technology magazine.
Well intended or not, however, these efforts have civil libertarians sounding the alarm. "The idea that a (RFID) chip could be read from a distance is a security nightmare," argues Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Program. "Personal information, including your photograph, home address, date of birth and signature would be available to anyone with a reader. The potential for criminal conduct is staggering."
It's also very debatable whether RFID technology/biometrics and other forms of national ID would do much to stop determined terrorists -- who have access to large sums of money and sophisticated equipment that could and likely would be able to get around any "security fence" the authorities are setting up. As with the random screening of middle-aged Caucasian women at airports, all this is more effective at hassling and impeding ordinary Americans than it is at catching real-deal terrorists.
But the deeper question is not whether criminals will be able to use this technology to their advantage -- or evade it. The Big Issue here is whether we're ready to ignore the hard lessons of history and human experience by entrusting a central authority with such all-encompassing power over the smallest details of our lives. The assumption that human nature has changed -- in particular, the human nature of those in power and their unfailing tendency to abuse it -- is staggering in its naivete and frightening in its implications. The temptation to use RFID technology and biometrics for other purposes than "fighting terror" is a wide open door that power-lusters will not hesitate to step through.
How does the idea of a government that knows (and records) every step you take sit with you? That somewhere, behind a computer screen, sits an official of the state who is aware (in "real time") that you're on your way to visit friends out of state -- or that you've been to a meeting of political opponents of the administration currently in power? Who knows what books you've been buying?
RFID-enabled licenses could one day contain (and transmit) information about your health, employment status, credit history, buying habits -- just about anything that can be catalogued in a computer database.
Advocates dismiss all this as alarmist technophobia. But Lord Acton's dictum about absolute power corrupting absolutely is as true today as it was in centuries past. Human nature hasn't changed, even if technology has.