With ID swipe, Big Brother bellies up to the bar

New Jersey’s Star Ledger reports on the rising practice of electronically scanning drivers licenses at bars and liquor stores:

It’s College Night at KatManDu, a popular Trenton nightclub, and the late-arriving crowd is predictably young.

Bouncers pat down male patrons and politely ask for IDs. They swipe everyone’s driver’s license through a small, yellow electronic box that reads a bar code and instantly displays the customer’s age.

Club managers love the gadget, and it’s rapidly becoming standard issue at the bigger clubs in Manhattan, New Jersey and elsewhere.

But the box does more than just check birth dates. It also retains the customer’s name, address, license number — even height, weight and eye color. All that information then can easily be downloaded into a computer system.

Most patrons have no idea their information is being electronically stored — nor are they asked if they mind.

“Why do they need it?” asked Tara Fort, a 22-year-old customer from Hamilton Township, who became agitated when told the scanning device was storing personal information.

“They probably want to send you a bunch of crap you don’t want. … At least tell me you’re taking my information.”

While federal law prohibits sharing or selling data from driver’s licenses, there is nothing on the books in New Jersey preventing bars from collecting and storing it. A handful of states — including New Hampshire, Texas and Nebraska — have outlawed the practice, but a spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office said the issue has never come up.

Joseph Surdo, a manager at KatManDu, said his club has built a database of more than 15,000 names in a year, but he stressed the information is used only for in-house promotional purposes.

About 8 years ago, before I returned to academia (and, eventually, privacy advocacy), I worked on the development of just such a product for an electronic payment processing company. The idea was to program the credit card payment terminal to accept a drivers license card swipe, read the mag stripe, print out a receipt, and retain a record of the swipe. An important part of the pitch was that by having both a printed and data record of the swipe, the bar/liquor store would have additional proof that they actually checked the patron’s id if ever questioned by law enforcement. We also pitched the benefits of collecting zip code and other data (stored on mag stripe) for marketing purposes.

The catch, at least back then, was that not all states used mag stripes, most states had different data formats, and others were already moving to 2-d or 3-d bar codes. Alas, the product never got fully off the ground, but VeriFone seems to have developed something similar.

Today, I shudder at the memory that helped to develop such a system…

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