“Swipe” art exhibit reveals how much your driver’s license says about you.

Queen Millefiore sent me a link to a very interesting Wired News article on a Pittsburgh art exhibit called Swipe that shows just what sort of information is encoded into the barcodes and magnetic strips on the back of your drivers license that a lot of us are carrying these days. More states are putting magnetic strips and barcodes on the back of driver’s licenses ostensibly to make fake licenses a thing of the past and more business are using them for more than just spotting a fake ID. 

Visitors to an art exhibit at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts got more than their martinis when they ordered drinks at a bar inside the gallery’s entrance. Instead of pretzels and peanuts, they were handed a receipt containing the personal data found on their license, plus all the information that could be gleaned from commercial data-mining services and voter registration databases like Aristotle. Some patrons also got receipts listing their phone number, income range, marital status, housing value and profession. For added effect, the receipt included a little map showing the location of their residence.

The magnetic strips and barcodes on the back of most state’s driver’s licenses contain more information than people think. The way the swipers use the information might surprise them as well: Some bars and restaurants scan driver’s licenses to catch underage drinkers and fake IDs, but they’re also using the information for marketing purposes.

While many patrons thought the museum project was fun, Singer said they were “pretty stupefied.”

“We put what we thought was the least sensitive data on a monitor over the bar, showing maps and a person’s name and age. But they were upset about that; especially about their age,” Singer said.

“We didn’t do it to offend anyone,” Schulte said, “but sometimes that’s the best way to get through people’s defenses. We wanted them to be aware that the data was easy to get.”

My most recent driver’s license from the time I renewed last year has a 1D barcode on the back along with a magnetic strip and the license clearly states what is encoded therein. For Michigan that info consists of date of birth, license/ID number and date of expiration. Overall not too invasive, but 39 other states have started making use of 2D barcodes which can contain a lot more data such as your social security number, your height/weight or even a digitized photo of the license holder.

Barcodes on licenses generally make life easier for law enforcement. Police scan the cards during traffic stops to avoid scribbling the information on a citation report. They also can more easily retrieve information from the computer in the squad car.

Bars and restaurants scan the codes to catch underage drinkers using fake IDs. Convenience stores use them to verify the age of cigarette buyers. Airports, hospitals and government buildings are beginning to scan driver’s licenses for security. And businesses can use driver’s license records for legitimate business purposes such as verifying identities.

“But is it legitimate to then store the information and use it for marketing purposes, or however they see fit without regulation?” said Singer.

Using the information, a bar can track how often patrons come in, the hours they arrive and even identify those who arrive in groups (if the cards of friends are swiped in sequence). The bar can query, for example, how old the audience for a particular hired band was or how many were male or female.

Bars also can combine the info with sales data if a patron purchases drinks and food with a credit card. The combination of age, weight, gender and liquor sales could help a bar determine what kinds of drinks to market to which crowd.

The info encoded on your license isn’t enough to get the kind of data they handed out at the bar, but it’s enough to make use of the data mining companies out there that do collect that sort of information. If you’re curious to find out just how easy it is to get that sort of data the folks behind the art exhibit set up a website called Swipe that has everything you need. They’ll decode your 2D barcode for you to reveal what info it holds, they’ll provide you with the forms needed to send off to the various data mining companies to get your profile for a small fee (the most expensive is $20) and they have a data calculator to help you figure out how much your data is worth.

While it’s true that it’d be damned difficult to live life in America these days and still avoid giving up your privacy it’s still probably in your interests to be informed on just what is collected on you, who’s collecting it and to what end they’re putting it. With the Bush Administration handing out more power to collect data on you without your knowledge to various federal agencies it’s probably best to study up on the data collection you can still learn about.

3 thoughts on ““Swipe” art exhibit reveals how much your driver’s license says about you.

  1. On a related note, clerks at convenience stores here in Japan (which are ubiquitous) key in a customer’s approximate age and gender when they ring up your purchase, thus accumulating a huge quantity of data about who is buying what.

  2. If you guys are really sensitive about the information encoded on the back of your license, all you have to do is swipe it across the pad when you check out at Home Depot or any other store that uses a magnetic security implant to prevent shop lifting. This will effectively erase all the magneticaly recorded information on the strip and you will be anonymous to big brother again. This eraser is built into the counter and usually can be identified by info about keeping your credit card away from it. Good luck!

  3. On a related note, clerks at convenience stores here in Japan (which are ubiquitous) key in a customer

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