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Published: Tuesday, 1/15/2002

Group asks for caution in supplying licenses, IDs


WASHINGTON - Lines at state offices for driver's licenses may soon get a lot longer because of new security recommendations, and an applicant may need to make more than a single visit.

A trade group for top licensing officials in the United States and Canada, the American Association for Motor Vehicle Administrators, urged states yesterday to crack down on procedures for obtaining licenses and identity cards.

Worried that licenses are too easily obtained by terrorists, criminals, and illegal immigrants, the group endorsed a uniform licensing process for handing out licenses in every state. It also wants to link the nation's computer databases on motorists, which some privacy experts warn could be a step toward a de facto national identity-card system.

"Each state does it differently," said Betty Serian, the chairwoman for the group's task force on ID security. "How can a bank teller in Maine be expected to know what a California license really looks like?"

The association, in Arlington, Va., said yesterday that state officials should scrutinize each prospective licensee's documents more closely and in some cases demand extra proof of identity.

Some hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks against New York and Washington obtained driver's licenses and state identification cards in Northern Virginia by lying about their residency statuses.

While the changes are aimed at tightening the nation's security, officials acknowledged they could lead to inconveniences within state bureaucracies already tarnished by stereotypes of inefficiency.

"If you're applying for your first license, you should not be expecting to walk out the door with a license in hand," said the group's president, Linda Lewis. "New checks may require additional verification. As we seek to improve the licensing process, you may expect closer scrutiny of the documents you provide."

Privacy experts worry that a broadly adopted new standard, especially one that would allow machines to check state ID cards, could let authorities easily track people nationwide using state licenses people already are accustomed to carrying. A top official with the American Civil Liberties Union, Barry Steinhardt, said Americans don't trust state licensing officials "to keep many of the most intimate details of their lives safe, secure and free of error."

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