Swipping IDs can be dangerous

Swipping IDs can be dangerous

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ABOUT 10,000 people a week go to The Rack, a bar in Boston favored by sports stars, including members of the New England Patriots. One by one, they hand over their driver's licenses to a doorman, who swipes them through a sleek black machine. If a license is valid and its holder is over 21, a red light blinks and the patron is waved through.

But most of the customers are not aware that it also pulls up the name, address, birth date and other personal details from a data strip on the back of the license. Even height, eye color and sometimes Social Security number are registered.

"You swipe the license, and all of a sudden someone's whole life as we know it pops up in front of you," said Paul Barclay, the bar's owner. "It's almost voyeuristic."

Mr. Barclay bought the machine to keep out underage drinkers who use fake ID's. But he soon found that he could build a database of personal information, providing an intimate perspective on his clientele that can be useful in marketing. "It's not just an ID check," he said. "It's a tool."

Now, for any given night or hour, he can break down his clientele by sex, age, ZIP code or other characteristics. If he wanted to, he could find out how many blond women named Karen over 5 feet 2 inches came in over a weekend, or how many of his customers have the middle initial M. More practically, he can build mailing lists based on all that data — and keep track of who comes back.

Bar codes and other tracking mechanisms have become one of the most powerful forces in automating and analyzing product inventory and sales over the last three decades. Now, in a trend that alarms privacy advocates, the approach is being applied to people through the simple driver's license, carried by more than 90 percent of American adults.

Already, about 40 states issue driver's licenses with bar codes or magnetic stripes that carry standardized data, and most of the others plan to issue them within the next few years.

Scanners that can read the licenses are slowly proliferating across the country. So far the machines have been most popular with bars and convenience stores, which use them to thwart underage purchasers of alcohol and cigarettes.

In response to the terrorist attacks last year, scanners are now also being installed as security devices in airports, hospitals and government buildings.

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Many other businesses — drugstores and other stores, car- rental agencies and casinos among them — are expressing interest in the technology.

The devices have already proved useful for law enforcement. Police departments have called bars to see if certain names and Social Security numbers show up on their customer lists.

The electronic trails created by scanning driver's licenses are raising concerns among privacy advocates. Standards and scanning, they say, are a dangerous combination that essentially creates a de facto national identity card or internal passport that can be registered in many databases.

"Function creep is a primary rule of databases and identifiers," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, citing how the Social Security number, originally meant for old-age benefits, has become a universal identifier for financial and other transactions. "History teaches us that even if protections are incorporated in the first place, they don't stay in place for long."

But companies that market the scanning technology argue that it poses no threat to privacy.

"It's the same information as the front of the license," said Frank Mandelbaum, chairman and chief executive of Intelli- Check, a manufacturer of license-scanning equipment based in Woodbury, N.Y. "If I were to go into a bar and they had a photocopier, they could photocopy the license or they could write it down. They are not giving us any information that violates privacy."

Machine-readable driver's licenses have been introduced over the last decade under standards set by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, an umbrella group of state officials.

Under current standards, the magnetic stripe and bar codes essentially contain the same information that is on the front of the driver's licenses. In addition to name, address and birth date, the machine-readable data includes physical attributes like sex, height, weight, hair color, eye color and whether corrective lenses are required. Some states that put the driver's Social Security number on the license also store it on the data strip.

The scanning systems present a challenge to efforts by state and federal governments to limit the amount of information that can be released by departments of motor vehicles. In 1994, Congress passed the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, largely in response to the murder of Rebecca Schaeffer, an actress who was killed in 1989 by an obsessed fan who had found her unlisted address by using California motor vehicle records.

Before the law was adopted, states were selling driver's license information to direct marketing companies, charities and political campaigns. Businesses selling, for example, fitness products and plus-size clothing were able to focus on customers within a given range of height or weight.

While the privacy act staunched the flow of information from state motor vehicle departments, there are only spotty controls over how businesses can create such databases on their own. In Texas, the driver's licenses can be electronically scanned for age verification, but the information cannot be downloaded from the machine. In New York, businesses are only allowed to store name, birth date, driver's license ID number and expiration date for the purpose of age verification. Many states require people to give consent to be on marketing lists, but businesses generally interpret consent to mean not actively removing their names from a list.

When Mr. Barclay, the bar owner, saw a demonstration of Intelli-Check (news/quote)'s driver's license scanner at a trade show in 1999, he was surprised. "It had never dawned me that that strip had information on it," he said.

He bought an Intelli-Check system, which costs about $2,500 and can scan both bar codes and magnetic strips. Now, three years and 1.3 million scanned customers later, he has grown to understand how the data reflects the bar's business.

On Tuesdays, for example, the number of customers born between 1955 and 1960 spikes when the 40-something crowd comes for the jazz.

Thursday night is popular among people who have the upscale Boston ZIP codes 02109, 02111 and 02113. They come to hear Cat Tunes, a band well known among those who go to Martha's Vineyard.

When the singer Chad LaMarch performs on Sundays, women make up 60 percent of the crowd. "The men always follow the women," Mr. Barclay said.

While attributes like age and sex can be observed from simply looking at the crowd, the hard statistics are more valuable in negotiating with liquor companies over promotions, he said.

Other bars are using the information gleaned to give repeat customers special treatment, similar to the way airlines reward their frequent fliers. Some are planning to tap into the addresses.

"Let's say I'm doing an all-male-performer show," said Kenny Vincent, who owns a bar in New Orleans called Kenny's Key West. "I could just mail to just girls I want to target between 21 and 34. I have all that information. The whole reason to have a database is to advertise and market to your customers."

In some cases the data can be correlated to what customers buy. Polka Dot Dairy/ Tom Thumb, a convenience store chain based near Minneapolis that operates about 100 stores, including the Bonkers chain, in Minnesota and Wisconsin, installed machines made by the Logix Company to comply with age minimums on the sale of tobacco. But Terry Giebel, a controller at Tom Thumb, said the ability to build customer databases was also a selling point.

"Any marketing tool that we have that makes us different than our competition is an advantage," Mr. Giebel said. "We could do direct marketing to people who are smokers."

But such cross-linking of data raises concerns. "As more and more people in the private sector want to make use of that identity document, it becomes coercive since it's linked to the transactions," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The scanner can also be programmed to reject troublesome customers. Simply knowing that a quarrelsome man is named Greg and lives in a specific town can be enough information to lock someone out. The Rack has determined people's identities simply by remembering the face and approximate time of arrival, since the bar also has a digital video camera that films people as they walk in. "You don't need a lot of information to find out who someone is," Mr. Barclay said.

Newer, two-dimensional bar codes that can store more data have been adopted by almost 30 states, including New York. Some states are already using this extra storage capacity to pack in biometric information. Georgia stores two digital fingerprints as well as the person's signature. Tennessee stores a facial recognition template. Kentucky recently became the first state to embed a black-and-white electronic version of the photograph in the bar code.

Such biometric information is designed to add extra security to the document, even though few scanners are designed to read such specialized information.

But as Americans debate expanding the national standards for driver's licenses to improve security, the scanner technology has already gained impetus.

Logan Airport in Boston is using the machines to check the identity of passengers. New York University Hospital scans and stores visitors' driver's license information. Delaware has installed the machines to screen visitors at the state legislature and its largest state office building.

The scanners' manufacturers are generally aware of the potential for personal information to be abused. The Logix Company, based in Longmont, Colo., allows clients like bars to view aggregate but not specific data, to prevent a scenario in which "a bouncer at a bar stalks a blond, 20-year-old, 5-foot-7 girl," said Lana Rozendorf, a sales manager with Logix. "As a company we want to take responsibility for who has responsibility for this information."

But with Intelli-Check's scanners and those of many other manufacturers, the information is stored locally, with the client gaining easy access.

Mr. Vincent, who uses an Intelli-Check scanner at his bar in New Orleans, shrugged off the notion of someone's abusing the information. He said he had no interest in keeping information on people who objected to being in his database. "Will I use it in the wrong way?" he said. "No."

Then he paused. "But then again, what is to stop the next guy?"

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