Too Much Personal Information On Driver’s Licenses?


Slate’s Albert Wong raises an interesting point:

I need to see your license.” These words are familiar to anyone who has ever entered a nightclub, gambled in a casino, or purchased alcohol or tobacco in their 20s or 30s. At first glance, the request isn’t unreasonable—just about everyone has a driver’s license or (for non-drivers) state ID card, it only takes seconds to comply, and in many, though not all, cases, it’s the law.

But a driver’s license or state ID card contains a wealth of private information. In addition to full name, date of birth, signature, and photograph, licenses and state ID cards typically bear one’s home address, eye color, gender, and height. Some states go beyond that, including Social Security number, fingerprints, natural hair color, and weight. Licenses may also reveal whether one wears contact lenses, has a medical condition, is registered as an organ donor, or relies on hearing aids, mechanical aids or prosthetics.

None of these private details are necessary to verify one’s age. Not only does this additional information not serve any useful function here—it could make you more vulnerable to criminals.

Wong goes on to admit that the vast majority of restaurant workers and bartenders are honest enough that there likely isn’t anything to fear here, however he correctly notes that there have been enough incidents of identity theft or credit card fraud based on information acquired from bar and restaurant patrons to make this something worth paying attention to. An additional risk that Wong doesn’t really touch upon is the possibility that someone could use the information on a driver’s license to stalk someone they encounter at a bar as a customer, obviously something that’s more of a concern for women than men.

Wong notes that there are relatively simple ways to make sure that this doesn’t become a problem:

The good news for anyone who just wants to get a beer at a bar is that there is a simple solution, one that has already been implemented successfully in other jurisdictions. For example, Western Australia, a large state that occupies the entire western third of Australia, issues a “proof of age card” that “shows only those details considered necessary for identification”—namely, full name, date of birth, signature and photograph. “For security reasons,” as the state government explains, no other personal details, such as home address, are shown on the card. Other jurisdictions offering similar proof or evidence of age cards include Ireland, the Isle of Man, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the Australian jurisdictions of Queensland and Northern Territory, and the Canadian province of Ontario.

Of course that means that one would potentially have to carry more than one form of identification, so I’m not sure how practical many people would find that solution to be. More broadly, though, it strikes me that there ought to be some technological solution here. Perhaps a bar code that can be placed on the back of a driver’s license that bartenders can quickly scan to confirm that someone is over the drinking age.

This is hardly the most pressing matter out there, but it does seem like something that could be solved easily if we only gave it some thought.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. James says:

    Pennsylvania (and probably others) already do have a bar code to scan for that.

  2. beth says:

    I may be mistaken but I thought after the mid-2000’s states were not allowed to put SSN on driver’s licenses. Also, in our state an under-21 driver has a different colored background on their license.

    A bar code would work to identify that the person is of legal drinking age; however, how do you know that person is really the person on the license without a photo or indentifying info?

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    MO has a bar code that cops scan when they pull you over. It would be easy enough to put all sensitive information there and not on the front for all to read. As to SS#s, MO has long allowed one to opt for a different # for your ID purposes.

  4. grewgills says:

    Beth has it right on the SS#. Hawaii used to have you SS# as your DL# by default (you could request different), but had to change that when the new law went into place.
    CA and HI and I think AL and others already have bar codes on the back of the ID that have thumbprint and other biometric data. It should be an easy thing to put the other necessary for police info there rather than on the front and leave just pic, DOB and locality on the front.

  5. walt moffett says:

    The rub might be that bars, c-stores, etc in spring break areas are using using bar code/mag strip scanners (like these on ebay) to verify age. The legal consequences for not verifying can be steep.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    I expect that you’d have the problem of too many places refusing to accept the ID card as valid unless they were forced to by law.

    It’s also not very useful unless you can use it for other things, like one of the two IDs you need when paying by check, etc.

    Amazing how you can get places that won’t accept a U.S. passport as acceptable ID! Had that happen to me many years ago.

  7. RGardner says:

    Hey folks, the “barcode” on the back of the license pretty much has all the info that is on the front on the license, your name, date of birth, and address (plus personal identifiers).

    About ten years ago I had a bar/nightclub scan the bar code on my license and didn’t understand when I got upset when they didn’t answer my question about data use and retention. This was in 2003 with VA license issued in 2001, being scanned 2000 miles away in Oregon, and the only reason I went there at 6PM is they had one of, at that time, rare WiFi hotspots in the area so I could use my laptop – a place (gay bar) I would not have gone to otherwise. This is a marketers dream, tracking all the customers, and getting their address. Just like Bed Bath and Beyond gets your address if you charge something there.

    If I go to said bar 2-3 times/week, that is in the database. The issue isn’t the data, it is how it is used (and who is using it). Go to Applebee’s, have your data scanned?

  8. John Peabody says:

    The Virginia license is in portrait orientation for those under 21, then a new card is issued in the standard landscape orientation after the 21st birthday. This is because reading a birth year and doing math is too hard for clerks selling beer.

  9. Boyd says:

    In this day of modern technology, why do we put more information on the card than the most basic, anyway? If the person holding the card is in law enforcement or otherwise authorized (and needs) to access more in-depth information, that should be retrievable from somewhere within the bowels of government. It’s probably already all in the DMV/MVA’s database.

    For the bouncer in a doorway or other similar situations, all they can see or otherwise access is the information the state thinks is necessary for that purpose. There could even just be a check mark (or something similar) to indicate the holder is over 18 or 21, so not even the birthdate would be displayed.

    Cost might be a factor, but in the grand scheme of things, it seems to me there’s plenty of value in this approach for the bucks we would spend to achieve it.

  10. al-Ameda says:

    We are becoming the most scared, whining and complaining group of people in the First World.

    Please. I gave up on my drivers license a long time ago – my picture has always been of police line-up quality.