As of this month, Washington state citizens now have the option of receiving an Enhanced Washington Driver License or Identification Card (EDL/ID).

Unlike a regular driver license, the EDL/ID uses a radio frequency-ID chip that can act as a border-crossing ID card. This means that instead of having to provide a passport or birth certificate, Washington state residents would only need their EDL/ID to cross the Canadian border into British Columbia.

Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the law last year, stating that the enhanced driver license is necessary to preserve cross-border trade and tourism while still boosting security.

The law was agreed upon by Washington and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It will be in effect until at least June 2009, a deadline for Homeland Security's Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which may require a valid U.S. passport for any citizens re-entering the United States from Canada.

Washington is the first state to implement “smart-card technology,” and will be closely observed by officials of other states that are considering a similar move.

Promoters of the card consider its convenience and affordability for travelers a big selling point. Instead of paying $97 to apply for a passport, Washington citizens can pay a $40 fee for the EDL/ID.

“This license will be a real benefit to Washington citizens, particularly residents of Bellingham, who might travel back and forth from Canada on a regular basis,” said Brad Benfield, Washington Department of Licensing spokesman and ‘97 Western graduate.

Not everyone is in support of the “smart-card,” however. Some early critics feel that the license could be a violation of a person's private information, especially if the card's data fell into the wrong hands.

But according to Benfield, the system has been designed specifically to safeguard personal data.

“I think the primary concern for a lot of people is the RFID, the radio frequency-ID chip that's in the card,” Benfield said. “Lots of people are under the mistaken impression that the information is received directly from the chip, but that's not the case.”

According to Benfield, when people with the EDL/ID approach the border, the border agent will scan the license and a randomized personal number will appear in the border crossing system's database. This reference number will be linked with information in a Homeland Security data pipeline to verify the person's identity and the legitimacy of the license.

“Even if someone did have an RFID reader at the border and was able to scan someone else's card, all they would be able to receive is that random number,” Benfield said. “And it would be useless to them.”

The EDL/ID is completely optional, so Washington citizens can decide for themselves whether or not the enhanced license is right for them.

“It just depends on your personal opinion,” said Laura Cable, Legal Information Center coordinator. “Some people do believe that the government having a track on them when they've done nothing wrong is infringing on their rights. But other people don't mind because they feel they have nothing to hide.”

The Bellingham Department of Licensing is one of 11 departments in the state offering the EDL/ID. The licenses are available by appointment only.

According to Benfield, Jan. 21 was the first day appointments could be made to receive the EDL/ID. That day, 170 people from Bellingham called to schedule an appointment.

“There really are a lot of people taking an interest in this license,” Benfield said.