MVA fights fraud with high-tech driver's licenses

Maryland's system for issuing driver's licenses and ID cards entered a brave new world of technology yesterday.

Say goodbye to embarrassing driver's license photographs. Say hello to embarrassing video images that are digitized into 10,000 bytes of information and permanently stored in a computer.


With Gov. William Donald Schaefer as a guinea pig, state officials inaugurated a new electronic system that could make the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration driver's license the most fraud-resistant in the nation.

"This is state-of-the-art technology," Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said during ceremonies at the MVA office in Annapolis. "Most importantly, it provides an unprecedented level of security. It is as foolproof a system as man can divine."


NBS Imaging Systems Inc. of Fort Wayne, Ind., will provide the new equipment in MVA offices, collecting 89 cents of the MVA's $20 license fee under an $8 million, five-year contract with the state.

All MVA offices are scheduled to be outfitted by Jan. 1.

The system's key feature is that it gives the MVA an electronic record of the driver's image and his or her signature. Only seven other states have installed similar computerized systems: Virginia, New York, New Hampshire, California, South Dakota, Hawaii and Louisiana.

Instead of taking a Polaroid photograph, a video camera attached to a computer terminal captures a portrait of the subject that is translated into a series of ones and zeros. Within 90 seconds, the license is printed -- with a copy retained and later downloaded to MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie.

A side benefit is that a bad portrait is less likely because the operator sees the image before printing it.

The updated driver's license and identification cards contain other security measures. Ghost images of both the driver and the state flag reduce chances of tampering with information printed on the license.

In the center of the card, but hardly visible, is a 1-inch-wide coating that turns orange and green when held at an angle. The coating, which contains the signature of MVA Administrator W. Marshall Rickert, is intended to make accurate photocopies impossible.

Even the plastic laminate is intended to prevent tampering. When pulled apart, the license self-destructs -- some of it sticks to the laminate and some does not.


A magnetic strip on the back of the license and a bar code on the front allow the card to be read by machines. That yields a significant fringe benefit to retail stores and banks, which can use them to verify an identification swiftly.

NBS officials said Maryland's system is the nation's most sophisticated, the first with a bar code and ghost images.

In the future, the system can add fingerprints or even a retinal scan as ID measures.

Maryland's efforts to heighten MVA security are in large measure the legacy of one criminal: Dontay Carter. With disconcerting ease, the teen-age killer was able to obtain a replacement driver's license in the name of the 37-year-old man he murdered.

Carter, who is now serving a life sentence in prison, simply told an MVA clerk he was Vitalis V. Pilius of Catonsville and that he had lost his license in a fire. When Carter was arrested in 1992 and the mistake discovered, the public was outraged, and state officials vowed it would never happen again.

"The kind of fraud we're fighting today is quite different from when you only worried about underage drinking," said Mr. Rickert. "This technology strikes a balance between the interests of privacy and the prevention of fraud."


But privacy is likely to be an issue with some customers -- if they know about the system, that is. MVA clerks, who process 1.8 million licenses and ID cards each year, do not tell applicants their photographs and signatures are being stored.

License information, including a person's picture, is being made available to law enforcement agencies. But what would prevent anyone -- including a stalker or other criminal -- from gaining access to the same material?

Mr. Rickert said he is not convinced a driver's image is public information, although he acknowledges all information on a license has been treated that way in the past.

Nevertheless, he said legislation would be offered to the General Assembly in January to restrict access to the electronic portraits.

In the meantime, most MVA offices will not have access to the material. The ability to retrieve the stored electronic files is not expected to be added for another year.

Customers at the Annapolis MVA, the only office so far with the new system, seemed happy with the results. The service took only minutes, and most actually liked their driver's license portraits.


"It's better than my last picture," said Nancy Martin, 49, of Severna Park. "I guess you just have to hope the computer doesn't go down."