What’s required on a driver’s license?
After a decade of repeated demands to use driver’s license data to catch illegal immigrants or parents not supporting their children, there may be a counter-trend among the states: Reacting to the epidemic of theft of identity – generated by strangers’ use of victims’ Social Security numbers – legislatures in 24 states have passed laws allowing drivers to remove their SSNs from driver’s licenses. SSNs are still printed on licenses in AK, HI, MO, NC and ND. But drivers may now choose to remove their SSNs from licenses in these states: AL, AZ, AK, CO, DE, GA, IL, IN, IA, KS, LA, MA, MI, MT, NV, NM, OH, OK, SD, TN, UT, VA, WY, and DC. California has a law requiring that SSNs may not appear anywhere on licenses, including within machine-readable stripes.
Federal law requires that states collect SSNs from anyone applying for a license or a renewal. The federal law is currently silent on whether the SSN must or must not be displayed on the license.
Fingerprints are collected from drivers in CA, CO, AL, GA, and HI. In CA and CO, the full image of the, print is stored in the driver’s records and used for identification purposes only. FL, GA, and HI convert fingerprints to numbers. Georgia stores these numbers in a separate database and Hawaii uses them for law enforcement. Texas also collects biometric identifiers for law enforcement purposes, but uses thumbprints and signatures instead of full sets of fingerprints. Missouri is unique in that it has a law expressly prohibiting fingerprint data on its licenses. Twenty-four states have plans and/or laws to make licenses machine-readable, either by a barcode or a magnetic strip: AZ, AK, CA, CO, DE, FL, IA, KS, LA, MD, MI, MN, MO, MT, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OH, PA, SC, TX, VT, and WI. Delaware requires a driver’s SSN to be encoded in a machine-readable format but forbids the SSN to appear uncoded on the actual card.
In Delaware, there’s a law on the books requiring that, upon conviction of a sex-related felony. drivers must return their licenses to the state. They’ll get them back with a,Y on the license indicating a known sex offender. For this service, the offender is charged an extra $5.
Another interesting aside: there is a law in Louisiana specifically stating that the phrase “Don’t Drink And Drive; Don’t Litter Louisiana” appear on every license issued by the state.
A Man Who Decodes Licenses
New Jersey drivers: Did you know that a random person, armed only with pluck and your driver’s license number, can determine your eye color?
This is just one of the many amusements unearthed by the diligent detective work of one man: Joseph Gallian, professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota, Duluth (email@example.com). Gallian is the foremost authority on how driver’s license numbers are encoded, perhaps because he might be the only authority on the subject. Several years ago, Gallian took a serious interest in the algorithms used to. produce these identifying numbers. There are no laws and no central organizations that regulate these numbering schemes -the exact method is at the discretion of the licensing state. To the mathematician, uncovering these schemes was just challenging enough to be interesting.
He began by writing to each state and soon discovered that many states were happy to tell him their system. Several states were much less cooperative. For some states, Gallian couldn’t even find anyone who knew. “The computer does it; so these people would just press a button and the number comes out,” said Gallian. His real work began when he found states that wouldn’t explain their systems. “If I can get samples – lots of samples – I can crack the code. If they tell me its secret, then I collect the data. I figured them out or I found them out.”
What-Gallian discovered was that several states use personal identifying information in determining the sequence. Many of the states use a sequential numbering system or still use SSNs for license numbers. But there are many (including CT, FL, IL, MD, ME, MI, MN, MO, MT, NH, NJ, WA, and WI) that incorporate a combination of birth date, sex, and/or letters from the driver’s name. New Jersey even codes eye color into its number assignments.
The methods of encoding are often complicated. Gallian himself can glean identifying information from a given driver’s license number. His web site, www.d.umn.edu/~jgallian/fapp5, offers a sample of this service, as well as some decoding on a few of his other hobbies: UPC codes and credit card numbers.
Copyright Privacy Journal Jul 2001
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