Political climate unfriendly to ID devices, backers say

Widespread misinformation about radio-frequency identification technology and high-tech identification cards has subverted federal and state legislation to modernize America's ID systems, a panel of industry officials and experts said Wednesday.

At the Smart Cards in Government Conference, advocates for RFID and tech-based "smart cards" said mandates to use modern technologies would dramatically improve the nation's security infrastructure. But resistance to such measures and technologies is swelling, they said.

Marc-Anthony Signorino, the director of technology policy at the tech group AeA, said that a fundamental misunderstanding of RFID spurred a series of poorly written bills in California, Illinois, New Hampshire and New Mexico to limit its use.

He said lawmakers have complicated measures to limit RFID usage because they have tried to make too many exemptions for uses they enjoy, such as smart cards for accessing highway toll lanes. "The legislation ends up looking like Swiss cheese," Signorino said.

Signorino said the political climate in New Hampshire has made it especially difficult for the industry to make a case for itself. The Granite State has been particularly active on the ID front. House lawmakers there last month passed a bill to reject a 2005 federal mandate for standard driver's licenses.

"We're scared to go to New Hampshire," he said. "They have gun racks on their motorcycles. They don't want anyone telling them what to do."

Robert Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said RFID and smart-card advocates are facing an uphill battle because their opponents already have shaped the debate. "The ground has been so poisoned by the other side that I think it's going to be tough to move forward," Atkinson said.

The movement against RFID and federal driver's licensing standards has garnered support from all areas of the political spectrum, according to Atkinson.

He said an "unholy alliance" of groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Eagle Forum, which is led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, has choked the ability of the technology industry to gather political support. "This isn't a group of fringe players," he said.

Atkinson said he does not expect the Homeland Security Department to require embedded computer chips driver's licenses because detractors of the mandate have convinced enough people that such chips will do little to improve national security. "I just don't think it's going to happen," he said.

Richard Varn, the president of RJV Consulting and a former chief technology officer, said smart-card advocates should focus on convincing lawmakers to punish bad behavior instead of banning technology. He said lawmakers throughout the country need to "beef up" cyber-crime efforts.

"They are not investing sufficient money compared to the size of the crime to efficiently combat it," he said.

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