License authenticity takes new turn

Five states have plans this year to secure driver's licenses and state-issued ID cards with digital watermarks.

'This is the latest technology that has come along,' said Beverly Neth, director of Nebraska's Department of Motor Vehicles. The Nebraska DMV began issuing digitally printed cards last spring and now is incorporating digital watermarks.

The watermarks hide machine-readable information in an image, making them more difficult to counterfeit or alter. 'It helped us put together a multilayer web of security,' Neth said.

The watermarking is 'a way of smuggling data into something else,' said Robert Durst, vice president of business development for Digimarc Corp. of Tualatin, Ore., the company providing the technology.

Because the watermarks are invisible to the eye, they are difficult to remove or alter and can verify the authenticity of a document.

New Jersey announced in April that it would begin using digital watermarking on its licenses, followed by Vermont in May, and Michigan and Nebraska in July. Kansas joined in September.

Florida announced in August that it had awarded a contract to Digimarc to develop a new license with enhanced security features, but it has not said whether watermarking would be included.

Watermarking can be used only with digital licenses, which are printed from electronic files. The states use it in a number of ways. For customer convenience, New Jersey issues licenses on the spot in a distributed system. Kansas is moving to centralized issuing for greater control and security. Kansas citizens receive a temporary photo ID when they apply, then a permanent license in the mail.

Both Kansas and Nebraska will use a central image server to give law enforcement and DMV personnel access to digital photos. They can verify identities and also compare images of new applicants against an existing image database.

New design

Some states, such as Michigan, have been issuing digital driver's licenses for several years and now are adding watermarking. Nebraska is making a larger leap, moving from paper licenses to digital.

'We were one of the last states to move away from that type of license,' Neth said.

The state began a pilot of the new license in a handful of counties in February and completed statewide rollout in June. Eventually all of the state's 1.3 million licensed drivers will get digital licenses.

'We are doing it over the five-year period,' Neth said.

The new licenses in all these states incorporate a range of overt and covert security features. In Nebraska, minors' licenses will have a vertical format, whereas those for older drivers will have the more common horizontal format. Other overt features include a holographic ghost image of the driver's photo and a laminate that changes colors when viewed from different angles. 'Only a few people know about' the covert features, Neth said. One is watermarking.

Digimarc has been watermarking other media for several years. The marks can be included in any digitally derived analog data, for example, for copyright protection and to guarantee authenticity of audio CDs, DVDs and images.

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