Monday, November 27, 2006

Bars and Bar Codes

Associated Press reported* last week that some bars in New Jersey (and probably other locales) are using a new bar-code scanner technology to capture information from driver's licenses. The captured information includes name and date of birth, of course, but also address, sex, height, weight, and eye color.

This has good and bad connotations.

From the bar's point of view, it is a way to have positive proof of the data on a license shown as proof of age. As a former cop, I can tell you many kids are geniuses (genii?) at changing the date of birth on the front of the license, but it's a lot harder (but by no means impossible) to change the information encoded in the barcode. If, for instance, 19-year-old Cindy Lou Who uses 21-year-old Mindy Sue Who's ID to get in, the bar has proof that she showed an allegedly-valid ID (why the doorman accepted the ID is another matter, if the two girls don't look all that similar).

From a police perspective, the program has some advantages, as well. In case of trouble at the bar, for instance, the police would be able to download the information and have at least a pretty good idea who was at the bar on a given night.

From a privacy point of view, however, this program is fraught with peril (God, don't I wax lyrical at times?).

First, whose business is it what bars a person goes to? If Joe Zlotnick visits a gay bar, would he want that info recorded someplace, especially if he's a homo-hatin', mouth-breathin', Bible-thumpin', hooker-humpin', sister-marryin', rifle-rack-in-the-pickmup neocon wingnut idjit? Would Father O'Leary want it recorded that he was at the KitKat Klub? Hell, would Sam Schlub want it on file he was at Tony's Roadhouse when he told his wife he was working late?

More to the point, would you want the local pub -- whether it's Archie Bunker's Place, the KitKat, or even Chez Pierre -- to have a permanent record of all your personal information? Remember, a driver's license has virtually all the information an identity thief needs to swipe your name and credit. It's nice to say bars are allowed to collect and store this information but they are not allowed to sell or share it. You really think the bar owner isn't going to share the info with someone, even if its just his beer wholesaler to get a better price on Heinekin? And how can we be sure the bartender (or even the system administrator) isn't s crook?

The worst-case scenario, of course, would be the gummint getting ahold of the info and using it for their own nefarious purposes. Can you imagine what the Rethuglicans would do if they could "prove" John Kerry -- even if it's not "the" John Kerry -- was in a strip joint? Or some mobster deciding to use your drinking habits for a little creative blackmail? (And yes, many bars still are affiliated with a certain Italian-American social group that makes decisions like who lives and who dies.)

Yes, I can see the advantages of a system like this. But I can also see the disadvantages.

And believe me, the bad outweighs the good.

*I can't find a functional link at present.

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