The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the people in each U.S. state responsible for authorizing drivers licenses, wants the U.S. Congress to institute a national identification system. The search for a national ID card began in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and reports that several hijackers used false identification cards to obtain U.S. drivers licenses.

Several companies have come up with technology that would make drivers' licenses more secure, adding computer chips with personal data, for example, or finger prints and other unique identifiers.

Betty Serian, the head of the Motor Vehicle Administrators task force on security, says the first step is to make U.S. drivers' licenses more uniform. At the moment, she says, each state that issues such licenses does so differently. "The United States has more than 200 different forms of identification issued by states in circulation right now," she says. "So how can a bank teller in Maine be expected to know what a California license really looks like? Unscrupulous individuals shop for the easiest and fastest way to get a license. They find the loopholes, and those unscrupulous people put you and me at risk."

Betty Serian estimates it would cost close to $100 million to link all state databases, develop uniform licensing procedures and switch to high tech cards.

But U.S. civil liberty activists insist such a system would pave the way to unwanted government scrutiny.

Mihir Ksirsagar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center says a national identity system conflicts with the rights to privacy that are guaranteed by the United States Constitution. "People have fourth amendment protections (the right to unreasonable search and seizure), other protections where the government can not get information about you without having good reason to," he says. "Here you are creating a data base where information about you can be made available and you can be tracked across different areas."

A driver's license authenticates a person's right to drive an automobile, Mr. Ksirsagar says. A driver's license should not become an internal passport. "I think this is a time for public education for civil liberties groups to show that the actions which are currently being proposed will lead to problems for the ordinary citizen," he says.

Mr. Ksirsagar concedes that since September 11, the U.S. public has become more supportive about the idea of a national identification system. But he insists the debate over achieving a proper balance between national security and civil liberties is just beginning.