Bill puts privacy protections in the driver's seat

Walter R. Houser

If you believe Americans have an unalienable right to privacy, you'll take heart in the latest round of funding bills from Congress.

HR 2084, the Transportation Department and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for fiscal 2000, contains two privacy protections for holders of driver's licenses. The implications of these actions by Congress should not be lost on proponents of federal electronic services delivery.

Having an online, transactional relationship with citizens has become the Holy Grail of nearly every agency. But to do so requires elaborate systems to authenticate the recipient of benefits or personal data held by agencies. How agencies handle such data has become a political issue, as does anything that smacks of a universal personal identifier.

Preventive action

The first relevant provision in HR 2084 prevents a Transportation action that could have become, in effect, a national identification system. The second uses transportation funding to protect driver's license information. Approved by Congress, the bill, at this writing, was headed for President Clinton's signature.

The first provision of HR 2084 repeals Section 656(b) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Section 656(b) required the display of Social Security numbers, electronically or through other means, on all driver's licenses. The goal was to thwart illegal immigrants from using false driver's licenses as identification. Illegals cannot legally possess a number.

But including Social Security numbers on all licenses has the potential to undermine privacy and increase fraud. Consolidating this personal data into a single logical database makes obtaining a license Job 1 for those intent on identity theft or fraud. Furthermore, Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration planned to implement Section 656(b) by mandating national format standards for driver's licenses, making them easier to fabricate.

Privacy advocates saw this as the creation of a de facto national ID system. Apparently, Congress agreed.

The second provision of HR 2084 restricts the ability of state motor vehicle administrations to sell driver's license information by withholding federal highway funds from those that do. States would have to receive permission from drivers to distribute or sell any of their personal information, including photographs, Social Security numbers and medical or disability information.

An uproar among privacy advocates ensued this year when several states agreed to sell databases of drivers' photos to companies.

This approach to protecting driver's license information is likely to pass judicial review. The Drivers Privacy Protection Act prohibited the release of all information contained in drivers' records. The Supreme Court plans to hear Reno vs. Condon, a challenge to DPPA. That legislation may fall to the argument that DPPA was an unconstitutional infringement on states' rights to administer the privilege of driving.

Unlike the DPPA, HR 2084 merely prohibits any federal transportation funding for states that release personal data without prior consent. The states can do what they want with drivers' data, but only at the risk of billions of dollars.

Although Congress is loath to curb the private sector's insatiable appetite for personal information, it and the administration are less reluctant to prevent federal and state government actions.

Agencies seeking to deliver benefits electronically will need to employ sophisticat-ed ID technologies. Any of these technological setups will also have the potential to become national ID schemes.

Bad example

'Remember PEBES' should be whispered into the ear of every federal and state information technology manager responsible for implementing online benefits. Despite careful planning and policy analysis, the Social Security Administration had to take the Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement database offline after a congressional outcry over the potential for unauthorized access.

By provoking HR 2084, Transportation has joined SSA in incurring the wrath of Congress'which is ever sensitive to public opinion'for undermining the privacy of citizens.

Will your agency be next?

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His personal Web home page is at

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