While under scrutiny for issuing fraudulent driver's licenses on one front, the Motor Vehicle Administration is relaxing one of its identification requirements on another front in response to a motorist's privacy concerns.
The MVA will stop forcing Marylanders to divulge their Social Security numbers when obtaining or renewing driver's licenses, based on a Severna Park woman's complaint that the number should be private.
The agency will continue to ask for the number, but it now will take "no" for an answer, MVA Administrator W. Marshall Rickert said.
In this instance, the MVA is responding to a complaint that it demanded too much personal identifying information from a law-abiding driver.
During the past week, others have criticized the MVA for doing just the opposite -- failing to ask for enough information from impostors who fraudulently obtained driver's licenses and an identification card.
An MVA employee was suspended recently for giving two fraudulent driver's licenses to an 18-year-old murder suspect.
Also, a Baltimore physician has criticized the agency for issuing an identification card in his name to an impostor who drained his checking account.
The decision to relax the Social Security number requirement is unrelated to those fraud cases.
Rather, the case against the requirement picked up steam last fall, when Ruth "Martie" Sewell of Severna Park tried to renew her driver's license. She refused to provide MVA employees with her Social Security number, and they refused to renew her license.
In 1987, the General Assembly gave the MVA the power to require the number as an internal "identifying number." State regulations prohibit the MVA from disclosing the number to the public or businesses.
Mrs. Sewell wound up giving the MVA her number so she could keep driving, but she took her complaint to politicians and the news media.
She said she disliked the notion of government and businesses compiling information about her under her Social Security number, as if it were some sort of national tracking system.
Credit bureaus, for example, use a Social Security number when compiling financial information about someone in computer data banks. Snoops will find it easier to obtain one's credit report and to pass off their inquiries as legitimate if they have the number, privacy experts say.
Mrs. Sewell sent the MVA excerpts from the U.S. Privacy Act that she said supported her claim that Maryland cannot deny a driver's license to someone who wants to keep his Social Security number private.
Mr. Rickert said, "I really didn't choose to pursue those arguments."
Rather, he said, he decided to change the policy because it was not worth arguing with the half-dozen Marylanders who have disputed it. "I don't think it's worth fighting to get a Social Security number in those small number of cases," he said.
The MVA is removing Mrs. Sewell's number from its computer, he said.
The agency uses the Social Security number to verify a person's driving record with other state motor vehicle agencies or TC national drivers' registry, for its own identification purposes and for assisting police in identifying someone whose driver's license or motor vehicle registration is being investigated.
Maryland does not print the Social Security number on driver's licenses.