THE LAST BASTION of privacy away from home – your friendly, no-questions-asked corner bar – is about to get the Big Brother treatment in Philadelphia.
Under a City Council bill that is almost certain to be adopted this fall, every taproom and takeout store in the city will be required to install an electronic scanner that reads the magnetic strip on the back of Pennsylvania driver’s licenses.
The handheld scanner displays the birth date and current age of the licensee.
It’s the latest weapon in the war against underage drinking. The scanners can easily detect the fake and altered IDs that are commonly used by minors.
I won’t dwell on the underage issue here. I personally think the 21-year-old minimum is silly. (Honestly, who among us adult drinkers didn’t first taste beer as a teen-ager? )
But even if you believe it’s in our interest to stop 18-year-olds from drinking (remember Mardi Gras on South Street), this new law should worry every adult who has ever sought a moment of undisturbed refuge at the neighborhood tavern.
With this technology, City Hall, the cops or whoever may someday could monitor every sip you take.
Proponents of the scanners think I’m paranoid. They say the equipment reads only the birth date that is printed on the front of my license.
(So far, only state driver’s licenses with magnetic strips can be read. That includes Delaware but not New Jersey, where info is printed in a bar code. )
They also say the scanners do not collect the info. A popular model called ViAge, for example, merely displays the birth date and age on a small screen.
But it doesn’t take much of a fearful Orwellian vision to see where this is headed.
First, those magnetic strips can be digitized with more than just name, rank and serial number. How about past convictions? Or your home phone number? And the scanners can be programmed to read it all.
Second, you can bet the data eventually will be collected. Another system used in State Stores, called Minor Checker, already does just that, electronically downloading all records from swiped licenses onto the hard drive.
Third, there’s no restriction on whose license gets checked, or when. So what if you’ve got a gray beard and look the other side of 45? You can still be carded – every time you order a sixpack.
“The question that occurs to me,” said Larry Frankel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, “is what use could be derived from this information?
“Even if there were explicit restrictions that would prohibit retaining any info from the card. . .I would be wary because there’s a financial incentive to collect the information and sell it. ”
How much do you think Coors would pay, for example, to know how many Buds you downed last month?
What about lawyers digging for dirt in divorce cases? Or insurance companies running background checks?
And how long will it be till the cops subpoena your bar tab in some unsolved felony?
Suddenly, a quiet night with a bottle won’t be so private anymore.
The city’s tavern owners – who normally squawk every time City Hall imposes new regulations on them – have not openly complained.
Certainly, they can’t gripe about the cost. Though the scanners cost between $400 and $1,500 apiece, that’s a bargain compared to the Liquor Control Board fines and attorney fees they face in a single underage drinking violation.
And they have further incentive: By carding every customer and monitoring consumption, bar owners can protect themselves from Dram Shop liability lawsuits.
Considering the expert quality of fake IDs, I can understand why liquor stores welcome the scanners. Internet sites offer bogus licenses and forging kits for as little as $15. Almost every college campus has an enterprising sophomore who can put together a passable ID with a laser printer and a few arts and crafts supplies.
At the Sixpack Store (Tyson Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard), owner Ray Swerdlow showed me a collection of driver’s licenses he’d confiscated with his ViAge. To the naked eye, it was almost impossible to detect any alteration.
Vanessa, supposedly born on 10/25/79, was actually only 17.
Lou’s license said he was born in 1980. The scanner showed it was actually 1984.
“Some of these,” Swerdlow said, “are just perfect. You simply cannot tell it’s fake. The scanner is the only way to detect an altered ID.
“My customers know I have the machine, so [minors] don’t even bother trying to buy beer anymore. ”
But kids can be dumb. While I interviewed Swerdlow, a young man – he looked 21 to me – walked up to the register with a pair of 40-ounce Mickeys.
“Yo, what’s that?” he asked, pointing to the ViAge.
“Go ahead, swipe your license through it and see,” Swerdlow said.
The guy obliged. The scanner said his license had expired – a sign that the ID might be fake. He stammered a few seconds, made excuses, and offered to show his school ID. But he walked out without his malt liquor.
So finally we have the technology to stop a kid trying to catch a buzz.
How long do you think it took the kid to score a 40 somewhere else?
Councilman Frank DiCicco, the author of this bill, said it’s the city’s obligation to control underage drinking “as best as humanly possible. ”
I don’t agree – not when it means we all sacrifice yet another bit of privacy to digital snooping.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Neuzelle Original Bathbeer.