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New plans are in store for an old number

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Scandals involving financial and other data lost by companies such as ChoicePoint, LexisNexus, and Bank of America have energized Washington to seek to help protect the privacy of Americans. But at the same time, a security measure born of the war on terrorism has yielded a new law that could become a "honeypot" for identity thieves, Mr. Sparapani says.

The Real ID Act, passed in May as part of a larger bill to fund US troops in Iraq and tsunami relief in Asia, will turn state driver's licenses into what amounts to national identity cards by mid-2008.

But that's not its purpose, says the bill's author, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R) of Wisconsin. He sees the act, which tightens the requirements to obtain driver's licenses, as aiding in the fight against terrorism. "The Real ID is vital to preventing foreign terrorists from hiding in plain sight while conducting their operations and planning attacks," said Mr. Sensenbrenner after the bill passed.

National standards for licenses, to be set by the federal Department of Homeland Security, are expected to be dramatically strengthened. Applications are likely to require several forms of identification, and information on the cards will be linked between states and the federal government. Life without one of these beefed-up licenses could be difficult: They'll be needed to board an airplane, visit any federal facility, or, in all likelihood, receive any federal services.

The act will "help to ensure that every driver is who they say they are," says Jason King, a spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. The measure also makes traffic in fraudulent ID credentials a federal crime.

Privacy experts, however, are concerned that the act requires that the cards contain a "common machine-readable technology" - and that's where privacy and data theft issues may arise, they say. This technology could be a simple magnetic strip, bar code, or computer chip, which would allow information to be collected from the card at a distance of several feet.

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