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The government is also juggling several ID programs to improve security. They include special credentials for transportation workers and tamper-resistant driver's licenses. Homeland Security has a new office to coordinate such programs, but privacy rights advocates say the less coordination, the better.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: Suppose you're a truck driver, one who transports hazardous materials. Right now, you have to submit your fingerprints for a criminal background check and have your name compared against a terrorist watch list. If you drive to a port, you'll also soon need a Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC card. And if you cross the border, there's another secure ID card to speed up the process.
Mr. MARTINE ROJAS (Executive Director of Safety and Security Operations, American Trucking Association): Each one of those programs has a separate cost.
FESSLER: Martine Rojas is with the American Trucking Association. He says applying for all these IDs takes time and money and he's not sure it makes things any safer.
Mr. ROJAS: We're supportive of a background check process. We're not supportive of doing background checks multiple times.
FESSLER: So his group, like many businesses, is calling for the consolidation of some of the screening and credentialing programs that have popped up since 9/11. Kathy Kraninger is director of a new Screening Coordination Office at the Department of Homeland Security. She agrees that the government should have to justify why there are so many different requirements.
Ms. KATHY KRANINGER (Director, Office of Screening Coordination, Department of Homeland Security): Let's make sure we have the answer to the question when someone asks it. Why can't I use this or why do I have to get another background check or another card? Really, it's making sense out of that.
FESSLER: Kraninger says, in some cases, the needs are just different. Those who cross the border, for example, have to demonstrate citizenship, not that they're free of the kind of criminal background that would prevent them from getting into a port facility. But she would like more integration.
Ms. KRANINGER: It is not getting down to one card; it's again getting down to reasons that make sense to people in terms of, once they've established their identity, once they've had a certain level of background check and being able to apply what we're calling multiple privileges to one card so you don't have to carry around a bunch of different IDs with you.
FESSLER: To that end, Homeland Security is seriously considering a pilot program proposed by the state of Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia.
Officials there want to test whether new drivers' licenses can be used effectively at the border instead of requiring Americans and Canadians to start using passports, or new passport cards as currently planned. They're worried that could hurt cross-border trade.
Mr. KEN OPLINGER (President and CEO, Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry): Right now, in all 50 states and nine of the ten Canadian provinces, the drivers' licenses have on the back of them a new style barcode.
FESSLER: Ken Oplinger is president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Washington. He says by scanning the barcode on licenses, authorities can already check dozens of criminal databases.
Mr. OPLINGER: Our suggestion is, let's take those databases and expand them and put information in those about, you know, what someone's nationality is, whether they're enrolled in certain programs that get them back and forth over the border quicker.
FESSLER: It's a suggestion that sends chills up Jim Harper's spine.
Mr. JIM HARPER (Director of Information and Policy Studies, Cato Institute): Having a single uniform key that accesses so much of our lives is insecure.
FESSLER: Harper is with the Cato Institute in Washington D.C. Like many privacy rights advocates, he worries that consolidating screening programs makes individuals more vulnerable to government surveillance and identity theft. And he doesn't think it does much to stop terrorists.
Mr. HARPER: If you look at how we organize our physical lives, we use multiple keys. So our key chains have many different keys on them. Our wallets and purses have many different cards. That's a good security design for ourselves as individuals.
FESSLER: The debate will likely heat up in the coming year as more credentialing programs come on line and officials look for the right balance between efficiency and good security.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.