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Wait to get driver license is expected, but this long?
Server failure causes computers to crash statewide

By Eric Fleischauer
DAILY Business Writer

eric@decaturdaily.com 340-2435

Friday was "the perfect storm" for Alabamians unlucky enough to be waiting in line to renew
driver licenses, said a state Department of Public Safety spokeswoman.

Lines that tend to be long on the best days meandered double-file through hallways at the Morgan County Courthouse after a computer server in Montgomery shut down at about 12:45 p.m. The faulty server, which came back online at 3, is owned and maintained by Oregon-based Digimarc Co., a state contractor, according to DPS.

Until about 2 p.m., Eddie Gaston, manager of Digimarc's Alabama operations, denied his company had a role in the shutdown.

"I know of no problem," Gaston said at about 1:15. "If there's a problem, it has nothing to with Digimarc." He said the company was doing nothing to resolve the problem because there was no problem to resolve.

DPS spokeswoman Martha Earnhardt said Digimarc contacted DPS at about 2 and acknowledged that its server had failed, crashing license renewal operations statewide.

Digimarc spokesman Jeremy Bartram said Friday evening the company was still investigating what role, if any, Digimarc had in the delays.

Digimarc won its bid to supply the state with a tamper-resistant driver license and issuance system in January 2004. At the time, the company said the contract was worth $9.5 million over five years.

Its contract required that it develop "software applications, systems integration, delivery and implementation of image capture hardware, central production of driver licenses and a new card design that incorporates advanced overt and covert security features," the company said.

Earnhardt said the Digimarc-caused shutdown at 12:45 was the second glitch to plague license renewal applicants Friday. Before that, problems with a network that accesses national background-check databases backed up lines in Alabama and other states. The network, AAMVAnet, is maintained by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

Earnhardt said Friday's AAMVAnet problems were no surprise.

"As more and more states go through AAMVAnet, it hasn't been able to handle the volume," she said.

AAMVAnet is the conduit most states use to access various databases involved in driver license applications and renewals. Alabama uses the service for commercial driver license information, problem-driver point systems and Social Security number verification.

The heavy reliance on AAMVAnet and other background-search networks is largely a consequence of the May 2005 passage of the REAL ID Act. Beginning in July 2008, all licensed drivers will be required to go in person to state driver license offices to prove their identity and address with three different documents before getting a new, federally approved state license. The new identification cards will be required to board airplanes and enter federal buildings.

Earnhardt said REAL ID's impact on Alabamians has been indirect. The state had been one of only four or five that for years had done stringent background checks in connection with the issuance of driver licenses. Passage of REAL ID has added 45 states, competing for the same computer resources and dramatically slowing the process.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, charged with issuing rules on implementation of REAL ID, has yet to do so.

The delays are particularly long in Decatur because it is the only license facility north of Birmingham that screens non-U.S. citizens for driver license and identification cards.

Morgan County License Commissioner Sue Baker Roan could do nothing about the computer glitch that brought her office to a halt, so she busied herself handing out coffee and soft drinks to generally understanding applicants.

"It just makes you sick," Roan said. "We try so hard to give good service, and then something like this happens. It's hard on the public, and it's stressful for all of us."

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