California Goes Too Easy on Real ID Act

Published June 1, 2006

Last year, Congress passed the Real ID Act, a law that calls for standardization of drivers’ licenses across the country by 2008. The current reaction from states like California and New Hampshire raises questions about how a national ID system would affect civil liberties, putting welcome pressure on the federal government.

California might have a reputation for supporting civil liberties, but on the national ID debate the state is moving to comply blindly with federal mandates. In April, California’s Senate Transportation Committee approved a measure that would bring the state into compliance with the Real ID Act.

‘Mark of the Beast’

New Hampshire, on the other hand, is kicking up a storm warning of big brother and what some consider “the mark of the beast.” In March, the New Hampshire House passed a bill barring the state from taking part in Real ID, rejecting it as a de facto national ID system. Testifying at a hearing on the issue, the Cato Institute’s Jim Harper said, “Americans and New Hampshirites should be free to go about their lawful business without being asked to identify themselves at government checkpoints. We are increasingly seeing this freedom restricted. New Hampshire’s participation in the Real ID Act would diminish Americans’ and New Hampshirites’ ability to go where they want, and do what they want, free of interference by governmental authorities.”

Since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is currently working on regulations for the new ID cards, it remains unclear what kind of restrictions citizens would face in their daily lives. Of course, that means this is exactly the right time to discuss how government should collect and use information. With an issue as important as a standardized national ID card, the debate should be loud and public, not behind the closed doors of a Homeland Security office.

Completely nixing the idea of a national ID card, as some would like, is a naive and risky proposition. Even if they differ in form from state to state, drivers’ licenses already amount to a national ID system. Most people don’t mind this kind of ID system because the information collected by the states isn’t easily sharable and thus far hasn’t led to civil liberties problems.

On the other hand, state barriers to information-sharing do create problems for law enforcement when they can’t identify crooks and terrorists past state lines. That’s the problem the Real ID Act is trying to address, but it remains to be seen if federal bureaucrats can devise a system that incorporates information-sharing with civil liberty safeguards. That’s why a national discussion, including our most brilliant technologists in Silicon Valley, is in order. That brings us back to the enigma of California simply giving in to federal demands on an issue so vital to its population.


A Second Look

State Sen. Gil Cedillo, who sponsored California’s recent legislation on this issue, defends the state’s complacency by arguing it “is the national consensus.” The uproar in New Hampshire shows that to be untrue. Californians should take a second look at a law that will affect them and their children for years to come.

If the proper safeguards are not put in place for America’s new national ID system, it could spell disaster. But the right systems, with built-in transparency and accountability, could go a long way towards making the country a safer place. The time has come for other states to follow New Hampshire’s lead and participate in the discussion.

Sonia Arrison ([email protected]) is director of technology studies at the Pacific Research Institute. This article is reproduced with permission of TechNewsWorld and ECT News Network.