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

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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.

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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.

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