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Washington state to provide WHTI-compliant drivers licenses

With the implementation of the U.S. Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) program, U.S. citizens ultimately will need to provide WHTI-compliant proof of identity upon returning to the U.S. from western hemisphere nations. With Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire’s sponsorship, and anticipating increased border crossings in 2010 with the upcoming Winter Olympics in British Columbia, Canada, the state of Washington decided to become the first in the nation to introduce a WHTI-compliant enhanced driver license. The Washington State Department of Licensing teamed with Washington Department of Information Services, the Department of Homeland Security, Digimarc, and Microsoft to implement the Enhanced Driver License program.


As a result of the U.S. WHTI program, U.S. citizens returning to the country will face more challenging identity proof than in the past. Historically, passports were not required for citizens re-entering the U.S. after traveling in Canada, Mexico, and some other western hemisphere nations. However, the WHTI program will ultimately require citizens to prove identity via an official U.S. passport or other WHTI-compliant document.

Many U.S. citizens crossing borders from neighboring countries don’t have passports, and some don’t want to be burdened by the cost (U.S. $100 for an adult) and time required to obtain a passport.

Consequently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is allowing states to introduce a voluntary Enhanced Driver License program that is more secure than a traditional drivers license, but less costly (as little as about $15 incrementally over the cost of a traditional drivers license) than a passport.

Gregoire sponsored the state’s interest in becoming the nation’s first to create an Enhanced Driver License program. The motivation for embarking on this initiative was multifold but included interest in providing Washington state citizens a voluntary means to accelerate their return to the U.S. after visiting Canada. Additionally, Gregoire and her team felt that the 2010 Winter Olympics in British Columbia, Canada, would increase the already large volume of border crossings, and therefore served as a logical impetus to introduce Washington’s Enhanced Driver License as early as reasonably possible. “This pilot project is a way to boost security at our border without hampering trade and tourism. Our effort to keep our border crossing moving is particularly important with the upcoming 2009 World Police and Fire Fighter Games and the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in British Columbia,” Gregoire said.

Under leadership of the nationally regarded Washington Department of Licensing (DOL), the state’s Enhanced Driver License (EDL) program began during the spring of 2007. DOL’s goal was to complete necessary system enhancements, interfaces, and new business processes by January 2008.


DOL CIO Bill Kehoe worked with his team to establish project plans to deliver the EDL in the aggressive deadline of around six months. The DOL chose to take advantage of the agency’s existing drivers license production partner vendor Digimarc to lead the introduction of newly required system elements. Additionally, Microsoft® Premier Services and Microsoft Services were chosen to provide guidance on the usage of the Microsoft technologies used throughout the system.

Unique Numeric Identifiers

During 2008, DHS expects to have in place at selected U.S. Washington-Canada border crossing sites (and ultimately at most U.S. entry points) special lanes that include radio frequency identification (RFID) readers capable of reading a randomly assigned unique numeric identifier on EDL cards. The only way that this number can be associated with an individual is via a call to a secure DHS computer system; calls are rejected from systems other than those explicitly granted access.

The EDL unique identifier is used to execute a secure Web service call to a Washington state DOL system that sends back to DHS a limited folio of identification data and the on-record photograph of the EDL holder. Washington DOL maintains redundant computer systems to help ensure real-time availability of this data to DHS on an as-needed basis, helping safeguard the privacy of Washington citizens’ data by not maintaining copies of driver information in a federal government database. A check is also run against watch lists, and the results along with the data from Washington are displayed in the system for the border officer. If the data in the system matches the document that has been presented by the traveler and there are no other issues, the citizen is allowed to re-enter the U.S.

The Digimarc EDL Solution

The EDL solution builds on Washington’s traditional driver license granting process by increasing applicants’ identity verification and introduction of an RFID-enabled card, based on Digimarc’s ExianSmart credential. The process begins with citizens expressing interest (the program is voluntary) in obtaining an EDL. They execute an online Web-based pre-registration, which screens out applicants who are not U.S. citizens and residents of Washington state, and then an application appointment is arranged by phone.

At the time of the applicant’s EDL appointment, he presents required identification credentials, which are scanned and evaluated for authenticity. Then the applicant is subject to a facial scan that uniquely identifies the geometry of the applicant’s features. This unique geometry is later checked against a Washington state licensee facial geometry database to identify potential matches, and if any matches are found, then the case is investigated by a fraud unit. This matching process can dramatically reduce the likelihood of one Washington state citizen falsely obtaining multiple licenses (a current problem in all states).

In addition to these new processes, the traditional licensing procedures are conducted, and the EDL applicant is granted a temporary driver license while additional checks (if necessary because of facial geometry matching, identity credential problems, and so on) are performed. If all verification processes are passed, the applicant is mailed an EDL within two weeks.


The Washington Enhanced Driver License is the first EDL to comply with Department of Homeland Security Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requirements. This program and its associated systems provide a variety of benefits.

Washington state citizens who voluntarily elect to obtain an EDL have the potential to pass through U.S. border re-entry faster than those without EDLs because DHS plans to provide special lanes that include RFID readers for travelers with RFID-enabled documents. Many Washington state citizens cross the Canadian border on a routine basis, and time savings can reduce frustration and improve commerce. Also, it’s possible that all people crossing the border might be processed faster as more and more Washington state (and, ultimately, residents of other states embracing the DHS EDL program) citizens are processed more rapidly with their EDLs.

Enhanced U.S. Border Protection

The EDL program has the potential of increasing the security of the U.S. at large by reducing the likelihood of problems associated with EDL-carrying citizens and allowing DHS to focus more time and resources on identification of potentially problematic individuals. At the same time, Washington’s EDL program serves to offer citizens more choices in travel documents for border-crossing identification (beyond passports) and compliance with the important Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

Additionally, Washington’s current EDL program is directionally consistent with the federal REAL ID program and fulfills many of the capabilities required in that program, resulting in a more secure driver license document.

Quick Program Implementation

The Washington state Depart-ment of Licensing was able to deliver the EDL program in a very aggressive timeframe because the Digimarc EDL solution is based on flexible and in-place Digimarc products and card factory. Digimarc added a number of innovations to meet the timeline.

Another reason that the program was able to be implemented quickly is because the underlying DOL- and Digimarc-supplied credentialing systems are built on Microsoft .NET technologies. These technologies were selected by Washington DOL because of their overall value related to cost, ease of implementation, and low maintenance.

The Digimarc and Microsoft personnel working under the direction of Washington DOL leadership helped Washington become the first state to offer an EDL. “We were able to deliver the Enhanced Driver License in an aggressive timeframe because of the vision of Governor Gregoire combined with the expertise and capabilities of the Washington Department of Information Services, Digimarc, and Microsoft personnel and products,” said Bill Kehoe, chief information officer, State of Washington Department of Licensing.


With the goal of protecting the U.S. and providing more efficient government compliance (in this case, border crossing), the Washington State Department of Licensing has created the nation’s first Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative–compliant Enhanced Driver License. For more information, e-mail:

Published in Public Safety IT, May/Jun 2008

Rating : 10.0

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