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How 9/11 Changed Our Driver's Licenses

A Nevada DMV officer compares reporter Jude Joffe-Block's photo against the agency's database of photos using facial recognition software. The program has helped state law enforcement prosecute dozens of people for identity fraud since 2008.
Jude Joffe-Block
A Nevada DMV officer compares reporter Jude Joffe-Block's photo against the agency's database of photos using facial recognition software. The program has helped state law enforcement prosecute dozens of people for identity fraud since 2008.
Changes to Driver's Licenses
Everyday life has changed since 9-11. The most obvious sign of that might be in the front flap of your wallet. Most state driver’s licenses have changed dramatically.

I’m a new Nevada resident, so last month, I went to the state department of motor vehicles to get a Nevada driver’s license.

I learned it’s a lot tougher to get a license than ever before.

Some of the 9/11 hijackers boarded the planes they later used as weapons with driver’s licenses and state identification cards they never should have been able to legally obtain. Some even had multiple IDs. That discovery galvanized state officials and federal lawmakers to make driver’s licenses more secure.


Ten years later, the changes are apparent.

At the DMV, I sat down at the counter of field services technician Thomas Brumley. He asked me if I was coming in from another state – I was, California.

Before 9/11, my old California license would have been enough to get me a new Nevada license.

But instead, Brumley asked me for not only my old driver’s license, but my passport and social security card as well. (If I hadn’t had a passport, he would have taken a certified birth certificate instead). Then, Brumley turned to his computer screen and verified my social security number with the Social Security Administration online.

“Our computers are all talking to each other and they are all giving you a thumbs up,” he told me.


That meant I could move on to the photo.

“Go ahead and step up to the blue curtain and stare at the blue dot,” a DMV employee told me.

The camera clicked and the image saved.

What hasn’t changed is that the photo is still the standard, unflattering DMV mug shot.

What has changed, is that the digital image of my face will be stored in a database. Then the DMV will use facial recognition software to compare my photo to every other face in the system to make sure I don’t already have an ID under a different name. Most states are using similar technology.

“The biggest change in the driver’s license arena has been the change in the laws that came about after 9/11,” said Kevin Malone, a spokesman for the Nevada DMV.

Malone said after the terrorist attacks, Nevada tightened up state laws. Then, following the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation for federal standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and birth certificates, Congress passed the Real ID Act in 2005.

In addition to setting security standards for licenses, the federal law included a controversial mandate to link state DMV records. A diverse coalition of interest groups objected on privacy and state’s rights grounds, arguing the new system would create a national ID.

In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security came up with minimum standards in the form of 18 “benchmarks” that states would eventually need to meet for their licenses and ID cards to be in compliance with the Real ID Act. Those benchmarks excluded the most controversial pieces of the federal law, and DHS has since pushed back the deadline for state compliance to 2013. The agency estimated the costs to the states would total around $4 billion.

Nevada made its security upgrades with an eye towards those 18 benchmarks, including a complete makeover of the driver’s licenses to include tamper resistant features.

“They have laser etching, they have micro printing, they have little bumps along the edge, they have more than a dozen security features,” Malone said. “A lot of them you can only see with a jeweler’s loop.”

But security practices still vary among states since the federal minimum standards aren’t yet mandatory.

Janice Kephart, the director of National Security Policy at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, believes this is a problem.

“Real ID was supposed to be in full effect now,” said Kephart, who also worked as counsel to the 9/11 Commission. “The deadline has been pushed back and pushed back.”

Some observers believe Real ID will never be implemented because it's too unpopular. Fourteen states have passed legislation to opt out. Several more state legislatures have passed resolutions in opposition to the law.

“States essentially just rejected Real ID,” said Chris Calabrese, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C., and an opponent of the law.

In fact, Nevada met the minimum standards in 2010, which meant its licenses were printed with a golden star to mark them as in compliance with Real ID. But because of political opposition to Real ID in the state legislature, the DMV reverted back to issuing the old licenses, even though there is still a deadline to implement the new licenses by 2013. This illustrates the ongoing debate in states about whether to comply with the federal mandate.

Kephart said despite the political controversy over Real ID, most states are steadily improving license security.

According to Kephart, the 9/11 hijackers would have had a much tougher time getting licenses today since many states are verifying social security numbers and legal immigration status before they give out licenses.

“The DMVs are quietly doing it. They aren’t telling anybody, but you will see it popping up on the website,” said Kephart, referring to the DMV websites that list requirements for obtaining a driver’s license. “They are not calling it Real ID, but those are Real ID standards they are requiring their residents to comply with.”

What is clear amid the controversy is that the role of the driver’s license is evolving.

“It’s both a driver’s license and the most widely accepted proof of identity that we have in the country,” said DMV spokesman Kevin Malone. “I don't think anyone designed it to be that way, it’s just the way it’s turned out.”

A few days later, my new license arrived in the mail from a central processing plant located out of state. That’s another new security upgrade: Until recently licenses and ID cards were printed right in the DMV, where officials said they were more vulnerable to counterfeiters.

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