STEMatState: Diplomacy and Public Safety

Posted by Derek Gates
April 26, 2014
Police Officer Patrols Street in Louisiana

It’s 11:15 on a Thursday night.  I am the Office of Foreign Missions (OFM) Duty Officer responsible for answering phone calls 24 hours a day from American law enforcement officials who stop foreign diplomats in the United States for traffic violations.  I get a phone call from a North Dakota State Trooper saying that he has stopped a person claiming to be a diplomat who has allegedly been speeding and is acting suspiciously.  The police officer asks me if the woman’s driver’s license is a valid form of identification certifying that she is a foreign diplomat.  The foreign diplomatic presence in North Dakota is limited so it is quite possible that the police officer is unfamiliar with what a U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Driver’s License looks like.  Therefore, I tell him that I will help him identify the validity of the driver’s license.              

The first thing I do is ask the police officer to look at the woman’s driver’s license to help identify her.  He tells me that the top of the driver’s license reads United States Department of State, on the left side is her photograph, and in the center is her identifying information including license number, name, age, and address.  So far, so good.  These are all indications that the driver’s license may be a valid one.  However, in order to prevent fraudulent driver’s licenses from being mistaken with valid diplomatic licenses, a U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Driver’s License also contains a number of highly-advanced security features, some of which are visible to the naked eye.  First, I ask the police officer to shine his flashlight directly at the driver’s license so he can see if the kinegram in the upper left side changes images and if the word ‘OFM’ in the bottom right changes color when he rotates the card.  They do not.  Next, I ask him to run his finger from top to bottom along the right side of the card to see if he notices a slight raised textured surface verifying an interwoven thread pattern.  This is also missing.  Finally, I ask him to scan the unique barcode located on the back of the license which will verify her identity.  There is no barcode.  This driver’s license is a fake.

The importance of the security features found in a U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Driver’s License cannot be overemphasized.  Had this woman been able to successfully fool the police officer by passing off her fraudulent driver’s license as one belonging to an actual diplomat, the drugs she was smuggling in her car would never have been seized because diplomatic immunity prevents the police from searching the vehicles of legitimate foreign diplomats.  Thanks to the amazing technology found in a U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Driver’s License, though, a forgery was identified and a criminal was brought to justice.

About the Author: Derek Gates serves as a Diplomatic Motor Vehicle Officer at the U.S. Department of State.

This post is one of a series showcasing the application of science, technology, engineering, and math fields to the Department mission. The Department will have an exhibit in the USA Science and Engineering Festival where K-12 students can talk to Department scientists and see first-hand some of the technologies referenced in the series. Learn more at


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