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RFID Driver's Licenses Gain Traction in the US

RFID-enabled driver's licenses saw a major adoption milestone Tuesday as the state of New York began issuing the so-called enhanced driver's licenses, or EDLs. The wireless identification documents are designed to be used in lieu of a passport at land and sea crossings with Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and Caribbean islands.
Sep 18, 2008This article was originally published by RFID Update.

September 18, 2008—RFID-enabled driver's licenses saw a major adoption milestone Tuesday as the Department of Motor Vehicles for the state of New York began issuing the so-called enhanced driver's licenses, or EDLs. The wireless identification documents are designed to be used in lieu of a passport at land and sea (but not air) crossings with Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and Caribbean islands.

The motivation for the licenses was new federal law from the US Department of Homeland Security that required American citizens entering the country to present a passport or other federally recognized document. Historically, Americans had been able to travel to and from Canada without having to do so. The new requirement caused a flood of new passport applications, overwhelming the processing system. To compensate, the government pushed back the date at which the new requirement would kick in from January 2008 to January 2009.

There was also a compromise to develop a new federally recognized identification document that was less cumbersome than a passport but which would suffice for border crossings. The result was the EDL. (For more about the EDL, see the Department of Homeland Security's site.)

One key aspect to the new passport requirement was that border states worried that the introduction new passport-checking processes at the borders would dramatically slow traffic and, by consequence, commerce. States like New York earn considerable sums of money every year from border-related commerce. "The [RFID] technology in the EDL will allow officers to quickly access information on a traveler from secure databases without interfering with the flow of traffic at the border," reads the Department of Motor Vehicle's announcement. "By expediting cross-border travel, New York's EDL will help ensure that the Upstate economy does not suffer from the federal travel mandate." Almost half a million New York jobs are supported by US-Canada trade. Furthermore, more than two million Canadians visit New York every year, and almost as many New York residents visit Canada.

Other states are in various stages of issuing EDLs. Washington, which sees a huge volume of traffic flow across its border with British Columbia, began issuing EDLs earlier this year. Vermont and Arizona have made commitments to producing EDLs. And Michigan, Texas, and California are in discussions with the Department of Homeland Security about pursuing their own programs.

Enhanced driver's licenses have not been without their share of pushback from privacy advocates, who worry that the driver's license-passport hybrids are dangerously close to a national identification card, something common in other countries but nonexistent in the US. Such concerns appear to be the minority perspective, however. When Washington began issuing its EDLs earlier this year, there was a backlog of applications because the demand was so strong. And according to the New York Times, 15 to 20 percent of New York state residents that hold a driver's license will upgrade to an EDL within the first year alone. If all the aforementioned border states begin issuing EDLs and the adoption in those states is as strong as what is projected in New York, a sizeable percentage of Americans could be carrying the new documents within a few years.
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