ARLINGTON, Va. -- The computer technology that helps guarantee that Mary V. Marks is Mary V. Marks was pretty much lost on Mary V. Marks.
What the retired federal employee did notice during a recent visit to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles was that her driver's license photograph was better than usual -- clearer and more flattering.
"It turned out fine," marveled Miss Marks, an Arlington resident, when the clerk handed over her renewed driver's license. "I don't usually take a very good picture."
A better photo is a minor dividend of the technology, called "digitized imaging." A video camera attached to a computer terminal captures a still portrait of the customer, storing the image.
The aim is to cut down on fraud. The digital memory -- ones and zeros -- provides a permanent record of a driver's appearance and signature that can be easily retrieved.
In two weeks, the state of Maryland is expected to award a contract to create an identical system at the Motor Vehicle Administration. The computer system will likely be in place by early next year at a cost of about $1.3 million annually.
The person most responsible for bringing this technology to Maryland, now in a maximum-security prison, is Dontay Carter, 19, who faces a possible sentence of life in prison with no parole for, among other things, kidnapping and beating to death Vitalis V. Pilius of Catonsville during a crime spree early last year.
After killing the 37-year-old Mr. Pilius, the youth was able to obtain a replacement driver's license in his victim's name by claiming the license had been lost in a fire. Carter used the license to rack up charges on Mr. Pilius' credit cards and to elude police.
The fact that the MVA was so easily duped by a young, violent criminal sent shock waves through the state. The clerk who issued the replacement license was quickly dismissed for gross negligence.
Within two weeks of Carter's arrest, Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer announced a half-dozen initiatives to upgrade security at the MVA, from establishing a toll-free telephone number to report license thefts to an agencywide vulnerability assessment.
The assessment recommended 98 changes to the way the MVA does business, such as varying the routes that armored cars take to pick up money, posting off-duty police officers in urban branch offices and designating a person's race on the driver's license.
The agency has since carried out all but seven. The racial description was one of the steps judged unnecessary.
"Security has been the MVA's most important focus in the last 12 months because of that tragedy," Mr. Lighthizer said. "We have put far greater scrutiny into the business of issuing licenses and identifications."
A nationwide trend
Maryland's efforts reflect a nationwide trend as driver's licenses have become more like a national ID, the equivalent of a passport for travelers abroad. As society continues to move toward electronic transactions, checks and credit cards, the need for a fraud-resistant driver's license has greatly increased.
"It's been a documented problem for some time," said Michael R. Calvin of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. "We'll see more and more jurisdictions going to digital imaging, magnetic stripes and bar coding."
Improving security has been no easy undertaking. Consider, for instance, the very different kinds of potential for abuse MVA clerks are fighting.
There are illegal immigrants trying to obtain identity cards, drivers with licenses suspended out of state attempting to conceal that fact, criminals attempting to hide their real names, con artists who need a false identity, and teen-agers who would like a fake ID to go drinking.
Their strategies are just as varied: forged birth certificates, fake Social Security cards, tampered or mutilated licenses and a persuasive line of patter. Desktop publishing and color copiers are their preferred tools of the trade.
"Dontay Carter was a terribly tragic reminder of what the crimes of the '90s are going to be," said MVA Administrator W. Marshall Rickert. "We've had to look at ourselves and see if we were ready."
The MVA now routinely asks customers for more than just a birth certificate to verify identity. In fact, ittakes a whole page to describe what documents are acceptable.
MVA employees are trained to detect fraud and abuse. A team of document reviewers has been hired to help spot forgeries.
The agency's telephone line for reporting lost or stolen licenses, 950-1MVA, averages 150 to 200 calls a day. When a license is reported missing, clerks routinely ask personal questions -- for instance, how many brothers do you have? -- to make sure the person who shows up later at an MVA office is the same one who reported the missing license.
How often is the system abused? MVA officials have no idea, but on a typical day last year, clerks refused seven transactions for possible misrepresentation.
Arrests under such circumstances are uncommon. Although MVA employees wear uniforms and badges, they do not have the authority to make an arrest and must call police to report a possible fraud.
By that time, impostors generally have fled.
"I have to assume we don't catch them all," said John F. Lyding, the MVA's director of driver licensing.
A hassle for users
The crackdown has been felt as well by the law-abiding portion of Maryland's 3.2 million licensed drivers and 46,000 ID cardholders. Getting a replacement license, particularly, has become a hassle for people who also lose other forms of identification in a robbery or fire.
Perri Gottlieb, a 17-year-old Owings Mills resident, had her license stolen in December, but couldn't persuade the MVA to reissue it until she tracked down an original birth certificate in the District of Columbia weeks later.
"I had a million things, and nothing was good enough," said the Pikesville High School senior.
MVA officials admit there has been a trade-off, with customer satisfaction the loser. People who need an ID, for instance, must be satisfied to receive it in the mail, a protection added last year to verify residences.
"We have become an agency that is less trusting of our customers and less user-friendly," Mr. Rickert said. "That hurts, but we had to strike a new balance."
Digitized imaging will be the biggest leap forward for security at the MVA. If, for instance, a thief requests a victim's driver's license, he could end up with a printout of the old license that would be useless to him.
Boon to retailers
Thirteen states have adopted the digitized imaging system or are in the process of doing so. Virginia, which got it last October, was one of the first. It's also used in Hawaii, South Dakota, California, Louisiana and New York.
The system not only protects the consumer, it can be a convenience. A coded magnetic strip on the back of the license can provide instant, accurate information for a retailer who is cashing a customer's check.
Law enforcement agencies are also anxious for the MVA to acquire digitized imaging. They'll be able to access the MVA's computer to retrieve the photograph and signature of any licensed driver.
Asbury W. Quillian, a Virginia DMV deputy commissioner, said of the system, "It's been very good and the public acceptance has been excellent."
MVA officials recognize that a trade-off for digitized imaging may be a loss of privacy. A state agency will now have a permanent record of people's faces and signatures that, unless the law is changed, will be available to anybody who requests it.
Mr. Lyding, for one, sees that as a small price to pay. The MVA driver licensing director has a mug shot of Dontay Carter posted above his desk as a reminder of the alternative to vigilance.
"I put it there in case I ever forget -- or get tempted to not do the right thing," said Mr. Lyding.
IMPROVING DRIVER'S LICENSE SECURITY
Recent changes in the way the state Motor Vehicle Administration processes driver's licenses could have tripped up Dontay Carter when he masqueraded as Vitalis V. Pilius:
* An MVA supervisor must sign off on license applications when the applicant doesn't surrender the old one. (The MVA clerk who approved the Carter transaction was the only person to process his request).
L * More than one document is now required to verify identity.
* A mutilated copy of a driver's license is no longer accepted as proof of identity.
* A new computer system will keep the photograph and signature of driver's license applicants on file, beginning next year.