Last Thursday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held its confirmation hearing for Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger to be the new head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Senators raised several issues ranging from management challenges to surface transportation. One key issue, however, was not discussed: What is TSA doing about the flood of high quality, fake IDs coming out of China into the United States?

Over the last several years, a new Chinese export has found a thriving market in the United States: high quality, machine readable, counterfeit driver’s licenses. For prices between $50 and $300, under-aged youngsters have been purchasing counterfeit driver’s licenses from vendors based in China via the web. The Chinese websites, such as ID Chief and ID God, allow customers to pick the state, enter in any biographic information of their choosing and submit a photo. The machine readable zone on the reverse of the license is encoded with the same information on the face of the license, ensuring a positive check should the license be scanned at a bar. A few weeks later, a newly minted fake ID arrives hidden in a cheap toy or garment. The quality of these counterfeit IDs is so good that Illinois Secretary of State, Jesse White, launched a public awareness campaign in 2014 to discourage college students from using a fake ID.  

An integral piece of our nation’s aviation security relies on the ability of TSA to verify the identity of a traveler before boarding an airplane. However, TSA has not invested significantly in technology to physically authenticate the security features of identity and travel documents used to board an airplane. Given the number of types of state issued driver’s licenses, and the time spent reviewing these IDs when submitted with a boarding pass, it is obvious how these fake IDs pose a serious risk to aviation security.

There are solutions. In 2012, a bipartisan group of senators wrote the Chinese ambassador to take action against ID Chief, a web-based operation selling hundreds of thousands of fake IDs into the United States. The Chinese responded promptly and shut the website down. Congress should engage the Chinese government and encourage more proactive cooperation to shut down the websites currently operating and ensure that no more take their place.

The technology to identify these counterfeits is available, but it involves an investment on TSA’s part beyond the standard black light. Counterfeit features can be detected in a matter of milliseconds, not seconds, ensuring a seamless flow of travelers through the checkpoint.

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The counterfeiters, both foreign and domestic, will endeavor to stay one step ahead. Verifying the information on the license with the issuing jurisdiction, similarly to how the E-Verify RIDE Program works, would drastically reduce the likelihood that a counterfeit driver’s license would pass undetected.

These IDs present a very real risk to aviation and national security. But there are solutions and both Congress and Vice Admiral Neffenger should be proactive in their approach before a terrorist or criminal exploits this vulnerability.

Meehan is policy director of Keeping IDentities Safe.

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