As early as next week, the California State Senate could vote on S.B. 397, a hitherto little-noticed bill that approves “enhanced drivers’ licenses” in California. The bill’s ostensible purpose is to bring California’s licenses up to the standards set by the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which mandated the use of a passport or “enhanced driver’s license” for sea and land crossings in 2008 within continental North America and the Caribbean. (Air travel still requires the use of a passport.) WHTI was and still is a paragon of costly overreaction to terrorism.
What’s “enhanced” about an “enhanced driver’s license”? It contains a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip, which in turn contains a personal identification number. Think of it as your Department of Homeland Security tracking number. The RFID chip broadcasts the information to any receiver that properly interrogates it. At the Canadian and Mexican border, this in theory allows for quicker transit and passage through EDL-specific “Ready Lanes.” The receiver pulls up information held in a DHS database, including identity data, the bearer’s picture, and signature. (Unsurprisingly, the bill reserves the right for the state to include other information in the future, should it deem it to be necessary.) At the border and beyond, it allows pretty much anyone to figure out your comings and goings.
Using RFID in identity documents was identified as a no-no by DHS’s privacy advisory committee in 2006. That doesn’t seem to have stopped the agency from moving forward with it. If S.B. 397 passes, EDLs in California would become legal but optional, as they currently are in New York, Michigan, Vermont, and Washington State. Given the government’s propensity for turning optional pilot programs into permanent mandatory programs (witness the current debate over the 17-year-old E-Verify “pilot progam”), it’s not difficult to imagine a time when the EDL programs cease to be optional—and when EDLs contain information well beyond a picture, a signature, and citizenship status. The government also tends to expand programs far beyond their original purposes.
Californians should not walk—they should run away from “enhanced” driver’s licenses.
UPDATE: Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) is on the case for Michiganders.