Is the High-Tech ID Another Form of Security Theatre?

Drivers in New Jersey and other states are facing longer lines in the Federal government's efforts to require still more proofs of identity in order to obtain a license.800px-New_Jersey_Motor_Vehicle_Commission_in_Rahway-615.jpg

Wikimedia Commons


Drivers in New Jersey and other states are facing longer lines in the Federal government's efforts to require still more proofs of identity in obtaining and renewing driver licenses, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.

The inconvenience would be worth it, of course, if it truly prevented fraud and terrorism. But there's disturbing evidence that the quest for the secure document may be a losing battle. As USA Today reports:

Overseas forgers from as far away as China are shipping fake driver's license and other IDs to the United States that can bypass even the newest electronic digital security systems, according to document security experts.

The new IDs are "an affront to the very sovereignty and dignity of the states that issue them," says David Huff, a senior special agent in enforcement for Virginia's Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control, which has investigated some of the frauds.

Most troubling to authorities is the sophistication of the forgeries: Digital holograms are replicated, PVC plastic identical to that found in credit cards is used, and ink appearing only under ultraviolet light is stamped onto the cards.

Of course it's nothing new that ingenious forgers can beat security systems. In World War II, counterfeit papers fooled even the punctilious Nazis. But it's hard to avoid the illusion that this time is different, or that catching the inept criminals and would-be terrorists while letting through the more skillful and better funded is a solution.We're proud of the rapid global diffusion of innovation -- trade secrets like the production of  porcelain and silk once were kept for centuries -- but don't recognize its downside.

If Web-based shops in China can produce documents that can fool law-enforcement experts, imagine what state-supported laboratories in hostile states could do. Not to mention the possibilities for a hostile person who can secure legitimate and authentic papers. What's really alarming isn't so much that forgers have caught up with our state of the art -- I'm sure a few were able to get around Benjamin Franklin's leaf prints -- as that we don't seem to have any new idea ready to overtake them again.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In