Federal Standards for Driver's Licenses Prompts Changes in Alabama

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama driver licenses, beginning in March, will have more security as a result of the 9/11 attacks and new federal identification standards.

The intelligence reform law signed by President Bush requires that the U.S. Department of Transportation and Homeland Security work with states to establish minimum identification standards for driver licenses, birth certificates and other forms of state-issued identification.

Backers of the new standards say it will make it harder to fraudulently obtain identification. Making licenses harder to fake also could reduce identity theft and underage drinking, public safety officials say.

Alabama issues a license made from a high-tech composite material. It's not just laminated paper anymore. It has more than 20 security features, some as simple as overlapping digital symbols -- making it harder to cut and paste -- and others invisible to the naked eye.

With the changes, behind every digital photo will be computer watermarks that only special police computers will be able to read. These watermarks contain demographic information about the cardholder. The cards also bear a blacklight-visible hologram.

Similar security features will be included on other forms of state-issued identification.

"The driver's license now is not just a driver's license,'' said Trooper Maj. C.R. Howell. ``It is literally a passport that allows you to travel in this country and if you have one, you are viewed as a valid U.S. citizen.''

Not everyone is excited about having the federal government tell states how to remake their licenses.

John Hurson, president of the National Conference of State Legislators, has called the federal mandate a ``one-size-fits-all policy'' that doesn't address states' individual safety concerns.

News reports from some states have highlighted questions about who will pay for the required work in states that, unlike Alabama, were not preparing to create a new license in the near future.

The idea of tighter security standards for issuing licenses nationwide is something that has concerned Howell for years. Alabama has been at the forefront in conducting criminal background checks and Social Security number verifications when issuing licenses, he said.

If more states would follow Alabama's example, he said, it could make a difference in the safety and security of the country.

Licenses are used as identification when opening bank accounts, applying for credit cards and even boarding airplanes.

Most people think it's petty to worry about creating a license that college students can't counterfeit in their dorm rooms, Howell told The Anniston Star for a story Sunday. But considering everything a license lets folks do, it's easy to see why Alabama considers it a felony to make a fake one.

The new license and ID cards will be nearly impossible to counterfeit, but that doesn't mean people won't try, Howell said.

"People who want to do that will always try,'' he said. "Our license is not totally secure. It never will be. But our job is to make it secure as best we can. I think we have done that.''