From the Mailbag:
Can People Look Up My Driver's License on the Internet?
By David Emery
Dear Urban Legends:
Below is an email I received today. The link goes to a site that claims to be able to research driver's licenses. I know that in California at least they are wrong as far as the law is concerned. I don't know what their real goal is, though. This is the email:
My cousin sent me this. This will let you access any drivers license in the US. I thought we had laws against this kind of thing.
Funny you should mention it. Here's a similar email I recently received:
Subject: Check your Driver's License
Big Brother has taken away our privacy. All the world can get your information off your drivers license. Check it out!
Now, there's a home page that would seem to confirm everyone's worst fears about the Internet!
Billed as the website of the "National Motor Vehicle License Bureau," it purports to offer a "free searchable database of over 121 million U.S. driver's license photos and license information."
How can that be?
"The United States B.S. amendment to the Freedom of Information Act enacted on Sept. 3rd, 2004 provides public access to motor vehicle driver's information in an electronic format," the blurb continues. "Under the Motor Vehicle Operator License Identification Act (MOLIA), all US states are required to adhere to the Driver's B.S. statute and store an electronic copy of all valid drivers licenses in their state..."
So, by filling out a simple web-based form, supposedly, any user can search the Bureau's centralized database containing more than 220 million driver's licenses.
There's just one slight hitch: it's a joke, a prank, a parlor trick it ain't real!
Another reader describes what actually happens when you type in your name and conduct a "search" on the site:
"If you do enter a name, state, town and gender, what comes up is a picture of a grinning monkey and the question, 'You didn't really think you could get someone's driver's license on the Internet, did you?'"
"National Driver's License Records Bureau" website
The fact is, the so-called "Motor Vehicle Operator License Identification Act (MOLIA)" doesn't exist. While there are a few bona fide fee-based websites that provide access to driver's license data from states that allow it "for legitimate purposes," it's not quite this easy to invade other people's privacy from your home computer. Hopefully that will remain the case.
Like most popular prank websites, this one succeeds not only because of its slick design and surface plausibility, but because it plays on people's very real fears in this case, the fear of privacy invasion. I'm told some people have found this site so upsetting they've written to their Congressmen about it; others are nonplussed and simply forward the URL on to their most gullible friends. Both reactions confirm an old truism among folklorists: people tend to joke about that which is most serious to them. It's one way we express, share, and cope with what scares us.
In answer to folks who have written to me expressing concerns about the possibility that the Web site listed above stores visitors' private information or leaves cookies on their computers, etc., I have checked the source code and found no indication of malicious activity. That could change without notice, however, and there are several other, similar sites out there whose safety I can't vouch for, so proper caution and "safe computing" measures are recommended as a matter of course.
See also: The Funniest Urban Legends We Know
Last updated: 11/15/11