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They pay their fines and pay their reinstatement fee," says Julie Clark, deputy director of Wisconsin's Bureau of Driver Services. In Wisconsin, you can lose your driver's license if you forget to pay your library fines, don't shovel the snow off your sidewalk, or don't trim a tree that overhangs a neighbor's property. The driver's license has become something it was never intended to be: a badge of good citizenship. Pay your bills to city and state, pay your child support, don't get caught using drugs, and the state will let you keep on trucking.

Screw up, and they'll clip your wings. And for those who don't get the message and stay on the roads?

In most states, getting caught driving without a license, or with one that's been suspended or revoked, means handcuffs, a trip down to the local jail, and having your car towed to the pound. Most businesses and state agencies have a problem with outstanding debt. Bounced checks, IOUs, stolen credit cards - it all adds up. Some organizations write off anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of their debts as "uncollectable. Most agencies, that is, except for the DMV.

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We'll pull your driver's license. We'll take your title. We just don't have bad debt. Increasingly, lawmakers around the country are employing that power to enforce public policies that have nothing to do with driving or motor vehicles. Lewis and his counterparts in other states aren't happy with the change, but there's little they can do when legislatures hand down new rules. And increasingly, says Goleman, those state agencies are turning towards the DMVs as a source of data about the state's citizens, a way of providing services, and ultimately, a means of enforcing policy.

The DMVs fit the bill perfectly. On one hand, the DMV database lists virtually every man, woman, and teenager of each state more accurately than the state's own census or tax roles. Even people who don't drive usually end up getting "identification" cards, issued by the state DMVs, so they can do simple things like write a check or buy an alcoholic drink. On the other hand, the DMV has a unique means of forcing citizens to comply with state edicts.

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In short, the DMV is a one-stop-shop for state agencies that want to reach out and affect our lives. Ironically, this concentration of information, power, and responsibilities has received scant attention from traditional privacy and civil libertarian advocates. The only group that has made any statement on the issue at all is the American Automobile Association: "Problems or violations of the law not having anything to do with the operation of a motor vehicle should not result in the loss or suspension of a driver's license," says AAA spokesperson Geoff Sundstrom.

Instead, it has been motor vehicle administrators themselves who have been honking the horn, warning that their agencies are becoming Big Brother incarnate. The only problem is that nobody is listening. David Lewis is not your typical deputy administrator. At 45, with a medium build, slightly graying hairline, and salt-and-pepper beard, his personal goals are to solve agency problems and find better ways to deliver services to the citizenry - while generally eschewing publicity.

Lewis has been one of the key elements in making the Massachusetts Registry one of the most advanced in the world, with visitors coming to observe the system from as far away as England, Australia, and Russia. Lewis came to the Massachusetts Registry in after heading the state's Merit Rating Board, which provides records to insurance companies to determine each driver's insurance premiums.

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In Massachusetts, premiums are set by the state; shopping around between insurance companies can get the consumer better service, but never better coverage or a lower price. It was important that the Merit Board have access to up-to-date and accurate records. They didn't. Back in , when Lewis joined the Registry, Massachusetts motor vehicle records were a mess.

Five months could pass before a newly registered vehicle appeared on the DMV's computer system. Some cars never appeared. The same was true of licensed drivers: More than a few people carried licenses that had no matching records in the state's computer system. It wasn't a total disaster, though, because the state's paper records were the ones that really mattered. Every driver and every car in the state had a matching piece of paper on file at the Registry, the final adjudicator of every record. Things were not much better with the Registry's handling of money.

Although most of the money the Registry collected was cash, not even the most basic cash accounting techniques were in place. The people who issued the licenses also collected payments and put the money into cash boxes. This led, not surprisingly, to many cases of petty theft. Lewis was part of a sweeping project to bring the Registry's computers out of the s and into the s. The first part of the modernization program brought cash registers at each clerk's station.

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Theft declined immediately. The new system also maintained links between records - so it knew, for instance, that the Simson Garfinkel who had a particular driver's license was the same Simson Garfinkel who owned a yellow Jeep, and that person lived at a particular address in Cambridge.

In the trade, this sort of computer is called a "client-based system," and it is still fairly uncommon among theDMVs. In Oregon, for instance, vehicle registration and driver licensing are currently handled by two separate and incompatible computer systems, although a client-based system is under development. The new computer made it possible, for the first time, to block renewal of licenses or registrations of people who have outstanding parking tickets, who haven't paid their excise tax, or who owe money to the DMV.

Although a computer hacker might think that an electronic system is more susceptible to fraud and abuse than a paper one, administrators feel otherwise. With good computer security, proper access controls, and lots of log files, they say, an electronic system can make individual fraud or misuse of official position extremely easy to catch.

For example, in June the Boston Herald reported that "two top Registry of Motor Vehicles officials" had gotten their driver's licenses free of charge.

Not only did the computer records say that no money had been collected, they also indicated that "a secret law-enforcement computer terminal at Registry headquarters in Boston" had been used to perform the renewals. That sort of abuse might have been commonplace under the old paper-based system; there is simply no way to know.

But with computer systems, it's a simple matter to go back through a person's record and see every penny that he or she ever forked over to the state for the privilege of driving, even years after the fact. The computer, combined with liberal policies regarding the dissemination of public records, also brought to light a number of Registry practices that had been festering for years under the manual system. In one case, a computer search conducted by a local newspaper revealed that an appeals board was frequently overturning convictions of people whose licenses had been suspended for drunk driving.

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In another, it was discovered that license plates with low numbers were being handed out as favors to friends of prominent politicians. For some reason, such plates are a Massachusetts fetish. Although people from other states might laugh, giving away the plates in exchange for political favors or loyalty was seen as a gross misuse of political privilege; catching the abuse was symbolic of stamping out more egregious misuses of power.

Automation had nothing to do with that scandal, but without automation, the story never could have been uncovered. Both cases in the late s showed unanticipated benefits that could be reaped from computerized records.

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In addition to making it easier for the Registry to get its job done, computerized records made it a simple matter to use data for purposes completely unrelated to the reason they were originally collected. As such, the records were the ideological cousins to a movement that sought to improve government efficiency by looking for synergy between different government databases - a movement that traced its roots all the way back to the executive branch and then-President Reagan's original claims about "Welfare Queens" who were bilking the system at the expense of the taxpayer.

The goal of Match was to pair databases of people who owed money to the government with other databases of people who got money from the government. Match went after government employees who had defaulted on student loans and welfare recipients with large unearned and unreported incomes. States were encouraged to set up their own match programs: California, for example, started intercepting the lottery checks of people who owed back taxes.

Although they started with tax and employment records, matching programs are custom made for the state DMVs - by far the most accurate databases of state residents. No other state agency tracks the movement of people more accurately than Motor Vehicles.

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DMVs even have aliens and, in some cases, illegal aliens in their files. Even people who don't drive get identification cards from the state for cashing checks or getting into bars; in most states, ID cards are issued by the DMV and stored in DMV's computer alongside licenses. But lawmakers around the country were realizing that beyond just tracking people and forcing them to pay state debts, DMVs were good for controlling people as well.

Initial programs to block people's driver's licenses and renewals were so effective that legislatures started looking for other ways to exercise this newfound power.

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