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Will Florida drivers carry a license to sell?

The magnetic strip on your driver's license holds data meant for law enforcement, but merchants can glean information from it to help them pitch products.

By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003


Sometime in the next few years, you use your new, high-tech Florida driver's license to cash a check at the grocery store or to buy a drink at a bar.

But the business doesn't just double-check your name and photo. It swipes the card through an electronic reader, instantly downloading a small treasure trove of information it can use later to hit you up with coupons, junk mail and solicitations.

It's a real prospect -- and, critics say, a new threat to privacy -- as Florida officials contemplate adopting sophisticated new drivers' licenses that could hold information such as your country of birth and biometric identifiers such as fingerprints, signatures and even eye scans.

Growing concerns about identity theft and terrorism have prompted many states, including Florida, to develop a license more resistant to counterfeiting. As the new credentials are adopted, the card readers that check their authenticity -- and pull information from them -- are becoming more commonly used.

The Florida Legislature is expected to act on the issue in its next session, which begins in March. Its decisions could affect not only who knows what about you, but how they can use the information they gather as they enforce stricter security measures in this post-Sept. 11 climate.

The Florida licenses that most people have in their wallets now have a magnetic stripe readable with scanners, but the stripes hold far less information than the new licenses could. The new digital licenses will be encoded with several levels of detailed information, some of which state driver's license officials are suggesting should only be available to law enforcement officials.

"Some people have raised the question of whether the merchant can capture the information and then three weeks later you get a coupon in the mail," said Bob Sanchez, spokesman for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

The short answer is: No one is sure yet. A recent change at the state driver's license headquarters might play a role as well. About two weeks ago, Florida began asking people whether they wanted to take advantage of the federal driver privacy protection act to privatize their information as they renewed their drivers' licenses. Thus far, about half of Florida drivers have said they want their information blocked from public disclosure, Sanchez said.

Sanchez said it was impossible to say how many people ultimately will take advantage of that option and how that would affect companies seeking to capture and use such information.

But it is possible to use card readers to create marketing databases from such information. And it has been done before.

About 30 states issue drivers' licenses capable of storing detailed information such as photos, signatures and fingerprints.

In Boston, a popular bar built a database of personal information on its customers and used it to determine what promotions are popular with particular groups. A New Orleans bar owner told the New York Times last March that he planned to use addresses and personal information to identify female customers between 21 and 34 years old so he could market to them an all-male performance he planned.

Even some of those who believe in the importance of improving the integrity of this de facto national identity card think businesses should be restricted in how they use this information.

"We support law enforcement having access to the information on the driver's license, but we do not support businesses having access to the information," said Jason King, spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicles Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Businesses should have card readers that will enable them to verify the pertinent information, say the age of someone who is buying alcohol, but not to collect that information, King said. There is a clear difference, he added.

"We do believe that people should be able to trust the license, but we disagree with the practice of collecting people's personal information for the purposes of marketing," King said.

A statewide grand jury convened to examine the problem of identity theft in Florida strongly supported the development of more sophisticated, tamperproof drivers' licenses. It also issued an interim report a year ago finding that businesses routinely sell and disclose customers' personal identifying information, something the report said ought to be curtailed.

The grand jury report, however, made no mention of limiting how businesses could use information gleaned as they scan licenses in the name of stricter security.

Bank of America lobbyist Mike Fields said a new generation of drivers' licenses is necessary to stem the flow of fraud and theft from financial institutions.

"It is critically important to the industry that this be a sacred instrument that we can rely on," he said.

Bank of America, the biggest bank in Florida and in the Tampa Bay area, never would sell to outsiders information captured from drivers' licenses, Fields said. "The information we have on our customers stays within Bank of America," Fields said.

However, the bank might use such information for its own marketing purposes. "If it's in your benefit, yes," he said.

Alan Sawyer, chairman of the marketing department at the University of Florida's Warrington College of Business, said driver's license information alone is of relatively low value to direct marketers.

"The information becomes valuable when it is linked to purchases and preferences," he said.

A store can work marketing wonders if it can link a buyer's name, age, phone number and address to patterns of purchases for everything from personal hygiene products to potato chips and beer. This allows narrowly targeted sales pitches and special offers.

That already happens with frequent shopper cards offered by many supermarket chains. But buyers who sign up for those cards choose whether to give up some privacy in return for the promised discounts.

Direct marketers for years have used similar databases to come up with mailing lists of those most likely to buy particular products, and mail order catalog companies sell lists of their customers' past purchase behavior.

But privacy advocates question whether government should be helping marketers by turning drivers' licenses into ubiquitous high-tech identity cards.

The advocates say that as state governments respond to the events of Sept. 11, locally powerful groups and industries are seeking to shape decisions on matters such as the new drivers' licenses for their own benefit.

"I don't think this is something that ought to be left to the state bureaucracies," said Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal, a monthly newsletter on privacy issues based in Rhode Island. "Quite often, the ulterior uses tend to dominate."

Thus far, much of the talk in Tallahassee about enhanced drivers' licenses focuses on how to keep terrorists and the like from getting them and using a driver's license to ease their way through American society and commerce.

In a presentation Jan. 15 to the state Senate committee for home defense, public security and ports, state driver's license officials focused their proposals on how they would ensure the credential could not be improperly obtained or forged.

In 2002, the Legislature authorized the state motor vehicles department to explore using biometric identifiers in future driver's license designs and official state identification cards, but such technology is not yet in use.

Sanchez, spokesman for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said that in fiscal year 2003, the department will ask the Legislature for $6.7-million for driver's license funding, an increase of $3.9-million. The following year, the state will ask for $9.8-million.

Last year, Florida tentatively approved a contract with Digimarc ID Systems in Burlington, Mass., for the state's new digital drivers' licenses. It provides systems and services to 35 states and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Digimarc Corp. of Tualatin, Ore.

If the Legislature approves funding for the new drivers' licenses, the majority of the 14.6-million people who have Florida licenses and the 3-million holders of state-issued ID cards would have new credentials within six years, as the new cards are phased in.

As the Legislature takes up the issue, will the state ask for any curbs on commercial use of information that can be gleaned from drivers' licenses?

Sanchez of the motor vehicles agency said the state will work with the Legislature to address such issues. State Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, is on a committee that will be exploring the driver's license issue. He isn't yet sure of the details of the system and how information could be captured and used, but he said consumer privacy is high on his list of concerns.

"Who will use that information and how it will be used?" Miller said. "You can be sure I and others will be asking those questions."

-- Alicia Caldwell can be reached at alicia@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8145.

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