Technology for Tamper-Resistant ID Cards

Some of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks had forged driver's licenses and other fake ID cards. Now, say some experts, it's time to give paper-based card systems a technological boost.

Fake identification can effectively allow someone to establish an identity, obtain banking and other privileges, rent vehicles, and even to obtain other pieces of ID that will allow them past security checkpoints.

But thwarting bogus IDs isn't easy for many reasons.

First, is the ever increasing power and easy-availability of computers and the Internet. The capabilities of color printers, scanners, and digital cameras have made it easier to produce official-looking documents. And getting blank copies of some forms of ID, such as state driver's licenses, is as easy as visiting one of many illicit Web sites.

To make IDs more difficult for "casual counterfeiters" — a young person, say, who wants to scam the weekend bartender for a drink, for example — government agencies have tried adding advanced security features. Some state driver's licenses now add watermarks — hidden images that are viewable only by viewing the card at a certain angle.

But such schemes point to another difficulty: the human inspector. Since there are a variety of ID forms — each with its own unique set of security features — a person checking an ID would need to be well-versed in exactly what to look for.

Many ID and security companies believe that the best way to check the tide of counterfeit IDs requires systems that use a combination of old and new approaches.

Rather than rely on just a visually recognizable identification clues — a photo embossed on a card with official looking seals — more secure ID setups would use encrypted data that can be read only by special equipment. That way, while forgers may be able to copy an ID card's appearance, it would be much harder to actually copy how it would work in an ID verification system.

Using Encoding Technology

One such company, UltraCard Inc. in Los Gatos, Calif., uses credit-card sized plastic IDs cards that contain a thin magnetic film similar to the material used inside computer hard drives.

A special encoding device can pull out the thin film and store additional encrypted information — a digital photograph of the person, for example. A special reader at a security checkpoint would then pull out the hidden media, or "shim," and decode the information to security personnel to help further verify the person's identity.

According to Don Mann, chief technology officer for UltraCard, the shim can now store about 5 megabytes of data. But since the technology is based on common hard drive media, he expects that UltraCard's capacity will soon be nearly 20 megabytes — almost as much as 14 floppy disks.

Locking Up Your Name, Face, and Fingerprints

That amount of storage would allow the card to store many unique digital identifiers such as voice patterns and retinal scans. A complete set of digitized fingerprints — such as those used in FBI background checks — could also be stored on the card.

To pass a checkpoint, a person with the card could be asked to submit to and pass multiple recognition schemes — an iris scanner and computerized facial recognition program, for example.

Dan Kehoe, president and chief executive officer for UltraCard, says that all the data stored on the card's shim is encrypted with a unique digital signature. A tiny microprocessor embedded within the tag's plastic shell would allow only encoders and readers equipped with the appropriate encryption chip to access the information.

UltraCard would be harder to duplicate than other forms of IDs since forgers would need both a valid reader and a functional chip-embedded card.

Kehoe says that within days of the Sept. 11 attacks, various congressional offices and government agencies requested demonstrations of the UltraCard system, but the company has not been offered any contracts or development proposals.

Privacy, Political Concerns

And while there have been recent talks within Washington of developing a national ID system for U.S. citizens, President Bush hasn't been strongly supportive of the idea. Other opponents fear that a national ID card would also lead to invasions of privacy.

Still, other U.S. government agencies haven't been shy about pursuing and using advanced ID systems. An ID card setup similar to UltraCard is currently in use by the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

'Laser Visas'

Since 1997, a company called Information Spectrum in Annandale, Va., has been providing the government agencies with a system called LaserCard. Developed by Laser Card Systems in Mountain View, Calif., the new ID systems has been replacing traditional paper-based permanent resident cards (or "green cards") and border crossing cards issued to Mexicans who frequently travel to the United States, often for weekend shopping trips.

The LaserCards contain a strip of thin metallic material, similar to the stuff that is used in audio compact discs.

And much like audio CDs, a special laser-equipped encoder is used to "burn," or store, encrypted digital information on to the strip of media. A matching laser decoder would be needed to read the data off the media and display the information on a computer monitor.

Harder to Destroy or Change

Although LaserCards can store only 2.8 megabytes of data, Bill Alsbrooks, an executive vice president with Information Spectrum says the information is very secure. Unlike with cards that have magnetic strips or film, "Sparks or magnetic pulses won't zap the information stored on a LaserCard," he says.

What's more, since a laser is used to encode the information on the strip, the card can offer other unique physical security features.

Immigrants who carry the new green card or border crossing card — now known as a "laser visa" — have a standard photo laminated on the front of the card. But a hologram version of the photo is also etched by laser on the optical strip. The image on the front of the card could be altered, but Alsbrooks says, "A laser-engraved photo is unchangeable."

That means even master forgers will have a tough time altering these new ID cards — at least for now.