About three years ago a group of friends and I were out at the local Bowling Palace for some strikes and drinks. Upon entering the bar, the bouncer grabbed my driver's license and swiped it through a card-reader before returning it to me and allowing entry. Three weeks later, I started recieving junk-mail from the Bowling Palace.

Fast-forward to a year later. Again with a group of friends, entering a local restaurant for drinks and dining. Inside, a pimply kid is taking IDs and swiping them through a similar reader that is generating paper receipts. Below his chair is a pile of dozens of receipts. I pick one up and observe it contains, among other things, the name and driver's license number of the person being scanned. When my turn comes to be scanned, I refuse. The kid says everyone gets scanned, even my 36-year-old self (my friends say I don't look a day over 40). I refuse again, as do several others in my party. I allow him to carefully examine my ID but not to scan it. He calls the manager.

I tell the manager I won't be scanned because of the 1) lack of security for my personal information (reciepts everywhere) and 2) I don't consent to be entered into their database. Manager says that the information isn't being recorded, the scanner is only for verification. I ask her how she can prove that. Manager says the information won't be used and I won't get mail. I continue to protest, she verifies my ID manually and allows entry.

I follow this with a series of emails to the manager of the restaurant. He tells me the state mandates the scanner and he has no choice in the matter. I say, fine, I'll take it up with them and ask him to provide me with the appropriate contact information. He does not provide this information. Research with the state is futile (typical bureaucracy). I observe that no other local restaurants or bars utilize these scanners.

Fast-forward again to this weekend. Attending a popular restaurant festival in the same town, we connect via cell with a number of friends and agree to meet in the festival's beer garden. As you surely expect by now, entry was barred by bouncers (of the same restaurant), wielding ID scanners attached to PDA's. I refuse to have my ID scanned and am told that "everyone gets scanned." I ask him why. I'm clearly of age and am willing to have my ID examined by a nearby police officer. He refuses, reiterating that "everyone gets scanned".

Since my party is inside, I ask the officer if I can enter temporarily to get my wife. He agrees. Once inside, I schnooker the bracelet guy to get an entry bracelet and stay inside. Everyone did not get scanned (nor did another in my party who followed my lead).

Are we as a society now comfortable providing identification for electronic entry into a database that contains, at a minumum, name, address, and driver's license numbers,for a transaction as simple as entry into a dining establishment? Are we willing to unwittingly "opt-in" to vendors' marketing when compelled to do so under the presumption of verifying our age? Considering the cost of identity theft ($56.6b in 2006), is the officers' reaction justified or naive?

RFIDIs this simply the beginning of the completion of the marketing circle where RFID tracks what you do, when you do it, how and with whom, and the messages that you receive all along the way? Have you "been scanned" and how was it positioned to you by staff — and was your visit followed by marketing materials? Or am I just paranoid? Should I be setting up an appointment for a tin-foil hat fitting?

I imagine a world where I have complete control of how my identity is used, and I am appropriately compensated for its use. I am fine with letting marketers track my behavior, tastes and preferences, but I want to be compensated for it. I would happily be the "boy in the bubble" and have every purchase, TV show, radio program, mp3, shopping trip, restaurant selection, web site visit, download, whatever, tracked. But, I know there's value to this and I want control. Crazy or forward-thinking?

James Wisdom updates:

Thanks for all the comments on this post. After seeing the numerous suggestions to "use a strong magnet to erase the stripe" I did some looking online regarding this idea. The consensus is that "common household magnets are not usually powerful enough" to wipe the (black) high coercivity stripe found on my ID (and most licenses and credit cards today). Some sources (and commenters) say the most reliable way to wipe the "HiCo" strip is by mechanically damaging the strip itself. So, it appears I have an experiment on my hands — to discover:

1. If a strong magnet bought online will wipe the strip, and if not,
2. What mechanical means could to be employed to do so.

But let me say that I find this technique of addressing the practice of unnecessarily swiping of identification to be marginal. While it succeeds in the purpose of withholding my information, it fails in letting the vendor understand that there are good reasons why this practice shouldn't be happening in the first place. Regardless of the results of this experiment, I will continue to object vociferously whenever I encounter this practice, and I appreciate your doing the same.

Thus, follow me now as I seek out a card-reader and strong magnet. It turns out that card-readers can be had for about $50 on eBay. I also discovered a number of intriguing "portable" card readers for sale. One might wonder what sort of vendor would need a portable card reader that stores its password-protected information for later retrieval? That's because the main purpose of these devices is for thieves to swipe your card and collect the data in the process of a regular business transaction. EG waitress swipes card at her restaurant reader for dinner, then swipes the card through her own card reader for later enjoyment — a practice known as "skimming."

For magnets, I purchased several "high energy Rare Earth Neodymium" magnets from Amazing Magnets (which I had seen recommended on Instructables and elsewhere).

Once I receive my goodies a new update will be posted with my findings.

As a side-note, along the way I came across an Instructables article describing how to decode the barcode on your driver's license. Out of curiosity I did so and was pleased to see that the barcode of my driver's license only contains the same information as is found on the front of the license (not my SSN). it's a fun activity for paranoids and requires only a scanner, a photo editing program, and a computer. The program in the article didn't work for mine but if you look in the comments another is linked that did the trick.

Dave Smith writes:

Scanning of IDs has been around for some time now. When I left the industry a few years back, DL scanners were just coming of age. Regardless of whether there is a mag stripe , the scanner will attempt to scan all the text, using OCR technology, as well as your picture. An ID scanner will be loaded with a template from each state that will funnel the information into the proper database fields. These scanners are huge time savers when issuing college IDs. If you've ever stood in line waiting to get a school ID (15+ years ago) you know what I mean. At first, the industry didn't get much resistance and people thought the technology was pretty neat.

Nowadays I'd never let my ID knowingly be scanned, although there is some legitimacy to getting your ID scanned at a bar or drinking establishment though. Bar owners today face a certain amount of liability if they serve alcohol to a minor, or a drunk patron. Say the minor gets drunk, leaves and takes out a telephone pole on the way to the next bar. He claims he showed ID and the bar served him alcohol. The bar can now go back and check their scans and validate the claim. Usually, even if somehow the ID fooled the scanner, the bar owner wouldn't be held accountable. Or if the minor or patron was at Bar A, got smashed, left and got pulled over and told the police he was at Bar B or C. The owners of B and C check their scans and find no records. Bar owners B and C are cleared. Some bars have only an age verification scanner that will record the scan, storing only the DL number, then flash a green or red light indicating a valid ID.

RFID is still too expensive for the masses but technology does exist that requires only that the card be on your person. IDs are scanned by just walking through a scanner, as at WalMart. More and more, though, because people feel violated by the ID scans, bar owners are installing high quality video surveillance systems. A picture is worth 1000 words!


Resources & Links