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New drivers' licenses become a high-tech ID

The new cards feature 17 layers of security. But if you hate your picture, beware: It'll be on there three times.

Published May 4, 2005

Florida's new driver licenses will roll out in Pinellas County this week.

CLEARWATER - Joe Greco lost his wallet last weekend and worried for days about the contents falling into the wrong hands.

"I had to cancel all my credit cards, and I was concerned about somebody getting my driver's license," said Greco, 58, a hair transplant surgeon who lives in Sarasota and works in Pinellas County.

The replacement license he got Tuesday could go a long way toward easing his mind for the future.

This week, Pinellas County became the third jurisdiction in Florida to roll out an entirely new driver's license format with 17 layers of security. The new design, which state officials say will be virtually impossible to counterfeit or alter, should be available throughout the Tampa Bay area and the rest of the state by summer's end.

Some of the changes are obvious. Some can be detected only under ultraviolet light. Some require specialized security equipment.

Add them together, and the state says they will be a major impediment to identity theft. And in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks - before which a number of the hijackers obtained Florida drivers' licenses - the state is placing new documentation requirements on foreign nationals who want licenses.

"I think it's great," said Greco. "With all the identity theft, this makes me feel a lot better."

Pinellas County Tax Collector Diane Nelson loves the new license, despite the hassle of getting the system used to produce it up and running.

"When people look at a license, they see a piece of plastic, but it's a lot more than that," Nelson said. "When you rent a car, get on an airplane, open a checking account, write a check, you offer the license as proof of identity. This tells the world you are who you claim to be. It protects everyone."

The new license system, which requires all new scanning, signature, camera and computer equipment, was installed last month in a pilot program in Osceola County. But computer problems prompted a second test in Orange County. When it worked, Pinellas became next in line. The licenses are being issued as of this week at Nelson's North County office on U.S. 19 in the Countryside area.

On Friday, the office at 13025 Starkey Road in Largo will be closed for retrofitting. It will reopen Monday with the new system. All Pinellas licensing offices will be converted by June 3, with other counties to follow.

The new licenses have 17 separate security components. The old licenses have "fewer than six," said Frank Penela, spokesman for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Some of the security components are secret, buried deep in layers of the licenses. Among those that have been made public:

A digital photograph on the front contains hidden numbers that come up only under a UV light. A second "ghost" photo that looks like a faded version of the digital image also contains secret data. There is a third version of the photo the eye cannot detect.

Photos have overlapping, highly detailed reproductions of the state seal. "It would be difficult or impossible to replace or duplicate the photos or reproduce the seal, because of the hidden data and the high level of detail," Penela said.

On the back of the license, all the information from the front is printed out in a copy block for easy law-enforcement evaluation. Below that text is a mottled rectangle that contains a coded version of all the printed information and more. The data is duplicated a third and fourth time on a magnetic stripe and in a bar code on the bottom half of the card.

The motor vehicle department Web address appears to be surrounded by a black rectangular line, "but the line is actually made up of microlettering that spells out State of Florida," Penela said. "I don't know how anybody could read it, let alone duplicate it."

Foreign nationals no longer will be able to get new licenses the same day they apply. Their personal documentation will be subject to authentication and will be forwarded to the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the federal Department of Homeland Security.

If the applicants are approved, a license will be mailed from Tallahassee within 30 days. The applicant will get a 30-day temporary license in the meantime. Florida's procedure dovetails with a new federal law that requires states to verify whether applicants for new licenses or renewals are in this country legally.

Licenses for drivers 21 and over come in a vertical format. Licenses for drivers under 21 are horizontal.

"A bartender will be able to tell immediately, even in dim light, whether a customer is a minor," said Sam McClelland, spokesman for the Tax Collector's Office. "A teenager won't be able to use a license for ID for alcohol because it will be obvious that the shape is wrong. It will be impossible for a minor to alter the license without it being obvious."

The new licenses, which have been available online since late last year for drivers with digital photos on file with the state, could have an impact on renewals by mail.

"If we have a digital photo of someone, they can still renew by mail," Penela said. "If we don't have a digital photo, they'll be asked to appear in person for their next license."

Drivers will be notified which situation applies in advance of their license expiration. Officials are hoping that motorists don't show up in large numbers to replace old licenses before they are due to expire.

"We hope the fact that making the switch costs $15.25 will deter people from coming in before they have to, or we won't be able to handle the crowds," said Lillian Blocker, deputy tax collector for licensing in Pinellas.

New licenses are made of polycarbonate, a substance more durable than the old plastic. Of all the features, durability was at the top of the list for Anthony Pasquino, 28, a videographer from Clearwater.

"My old license is broken in half in my pocket right now," Pasquino said.

As excitement, curiosity and some startup glitches swirled around him on the second day of license rollout at Nelson's North County office, Robert Woolford, 86, fretted only whether the picture on the new license would be as good as the picture on his old one.

"This is good," the retired machinist from Palm Harbor decided when he got the new ID. "It has a lot of extra information on it. But I'd rather have my old picture. At 86, this could be my last one, you know."

[Last modified May 4, 2005, 00:58:13]

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