POSTSCRIPT / November 29, 2001 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

Share This

Will biometrics solve identification problem?

NEW YORK — We have not seen the end to the restrictive reactions to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America. One such area of restrictions is in the licensing of some 200 million drivers in this country.

With its digitized picture and biometrics data stored in its magnetic stripe, the driver’s license in many states may well be the nation’s ultimate ID system, an idea that surfaces every now and then in the Philippines.

Various states design and issue their own licenses, prompting some advocates of closer control of identification systems to bat for common minimum specifications for drivers’ licenses.

Data from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators show that only five of the 50 states require fingerprinting at the time of the driver’s application. Only 33 of them place the digitized image of the driver on his license.

Only 31 states place a bar code on their licenses. This smaller variation of the bar code on supermarket goods makes laser-aided processing easier, including police verification when a driver is accosted for traffic violation.

But only 23 so far have magnetic stripes on their licenses. In these states, police cars have built-in computers that are linked to the base for on-line processing. The officer swipes the license and all information stored in it are accessed.

Seven holdout states do not require fingerprinting and neither do they have a digitized image, a bar code and a magnetic stripe on their licenses. They are Alaska, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey and Oklahoma.

* * *

ANTI-ALIEN RULES: Some states where the Filipino population happens to be considerable have digitized pictures, bar codes and magnetic stripes. They are California, Hawaii (but no stripe), Maryland, and Texas. New York has the bar code and Hawaii has no stripe but has the other features.

As we related last time, we hied off to a Motor Vehicle Services office in New Jersey and found that they have raised the bar. An alien on a temporary visitor’s visa must have a valid stay of at least one year to be able to apply for a driver’s license.

But since the maximum stay that the Immigration and Naturalization Service gives is six months at a time, applying for a license (at least in Jersey) is ruled out. We have not checked, but it is possible that other states have adopted the same restrictive rule in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack.

Aside from the green card holders (aliens given permanent resident status), the only foreigners who may qualify are those holding visas for foreign officials posted here, pre-arranged workers, investors and students who will be around longer than one year because of the nature of their stay.

* * *

MYRIAD USES OF LICENSE: But what’s the big deal about a driver’s license? An alien who is just passing through or visiting for a week or two may not feel the need for it, but for others who want to stay longer and transact business, the license is convenient, if not crucial.

The license, one will discover, is not just for driving. For identification, it’s the first thing they ask for when you go to the bank, the store and even when boarding a plane.

Of course one may show his passport, but that bulky document is something you would rather present only at immigration. Elsewhere, showing it — also whipping out a wad of $100 bills — will mark you instantly as an outsider.

Talking of hundred-dollar bills, try paying with one and the surprised cashier used to plastic money would gleefully wave it to her colleagues like it were a moon rock falling on her lap.

* * *

CASH PAYMENTS ONLY: During the waning days of the Marcos dictatorship, Cabinet members, cronies and the like were frantically moving their millions to what they thought was the safety of America. There emerged in California and New York a Filipino species easily identified by his wads of $100 bills so thick that they didn’t fit in his wallet or money clip.

Salesmen would tell incredible (to them) stories of some lady or gentleman from Manila buying a flashy car and counting out on the salesman’s palm the $100 bills with consecutive serial numbers and so crisp you would suspect they had just pilfered them from the mint.

The same thing with houses, or rather mansions and condo buildings in exclusive enclaves. The pampered officials and runners of Mr. Marcos wanted nothing but the best. And they had this habit of locating near the boss’s address.

Remember that big fire in an exclusive condo in San Francisco where the wife of a senior Cabinet official came running out with nothing on but her fabulous mink coat? Her picture was in the local papers, but not in the “self-regulated” press back home. Incidentally, Her Royal Highness and her court of Cabinet jesters and cronies owned several units in that building.

* * *

COMES IN BIOMETRICS: But going back to driving and licenses, despite the usual resistance (Big Brother and other arguments about human rights and privacy), there is a discernable tightening of requirements aside from the new rules we’ve already mentioned.

There is pressure for more cooperation among states, perhaps a little nudging from the federal government, for a nationwide uniform licensing framework so people trying to hide their bad record or their true identities can be easily ferreted out.

On top of the agenda is biometrics or the measurement of an individual’s physical characteristics that vary from one person to another.

Biometrics cover fingerprinting, which is now done in five states — California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Hawaii — and iris and retinal scans, hand geometry, and facial recognition technology.

This technology uses computers and newly developed software to analyze the distance between landmarks on a person’s face such as eye sockets, nose, chin and cheekbones. With these data, a “faceprint” is produced for comparison purposes. We haven’t asked how this will work with matrons who undergo regular face-lifting and cosmetic surgery.

* * *

THE HUMAN ELEMENT: If some centuries from now biometrics is adopted in the Philippines, we might be able to distinguish finally between a Federico Pasang Cruz writing for a newspaper and another Federico Pasang Cruz writing checks from the president’s desk at the GSIS.

The technology won’t be just at the motor vehicles office. It has to be matched by companion scanners and computers on board police cars — all of which will be served by a network linked via radio or satellite. (It’s rather obvious that a prowl car cannot run far and fast enough if it is connected by land wires to headquarters, di po ba?)

But even in this affluent society, such biometrics high-tech stuff may not be adopted universally in the very near future. Many states are just opting at the moment for digitized pictures on licenses with matching pictures on record, and a bar code or a magnetic stripe.

Again thinking of the Philippine setting, even high-tech is no match to the low-tech fixers infesting our motor vehicles offices. That’s one area, the human element, that needs urgent cleaning up, in our case.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 29, 2001)

Share your thoughts.

Your email address will not be published.