New York Offers “Enhanced” RFID Driver’s Licenses

By RICK KARLIN, Capitol bureau 
First published: Saturday, September 13, 2008

ALBANY — Starting Tuesday, New Yorkers will be able to buy new driver’s licenses containing a radio chip that will let them travel between the U.S. and Canada or Mexico without a passport.

The new Enhanced Drivers License, which will cost an additional $30 on top of the standard $50 license fee, also will allow those on boats or ships to travel to Bermuda and Caribbean nations without a passport.

Starting in June, federal law will dictate that passports or other proof of citizenship — or an enhanced license — will be needed to visit neighboring countries, including Canada and Mexico.

“This is an opportunity for individuals, at their option, to get through the borders more quickly,” said Ken Brown, a spokesman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

The new licenses are expected to draw the most immediate interest in border regions such as Buffalo and Plattsburgh. DMV Commissioner David Swarts is planning to unveil the new licenses Tuesday in the Buffalo area.

“Some of the clerks are anticipating a big crowd,” Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola said, although he doesn’t expect a rush of applications at his Troy office.

In 2006, New Yorkers made 1.7 million visits to Canada, according to state records.

The enhanced license will be the first state-issued form of identification containing a radio chip, which has civil libertarians concerned about some aspects of the plan.

The chips emit a radio frequency that can be detected by customs and border patrol agents as a driver approaches the border, Brown said.

The frequencies are encoded so they don’t reveal the identity of the license holder — and only authorized agents can enter a secure database that will match the driver with the frequency.

While they cited no specific dangers, the state Civil Liberties Union has said it has questions about how well the identities of license holders are protected, and they wonder what might happen if individuals with radio tracking devices were to start searching for the chip signals.

“We’re concerned that it’s a technology that could potentially expose users to tracking or monitoring,” said Udi Ofer, a lawyer with the NYCLU.

Ofer also said his group wants the state of offer details and assurances about how it will prevent unauthorized people from linking the radio signals to specific motorists.

He is also worried that surveillance technology is becoming more widespread.

Radio emissions from the licenses, however, can be blocked by storing the licenses in a metallic sleeve similar to the foil-like bags that motorists can use to disable their E-ZPass toll sensors, Merola said.

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