REAL ID Implementation Slow in States

Published November 1, 2007

With the federal deadline for issuing drivers’ licenses that meet the criteria of the REAL ID Act of 2005 barely five months away, few if any states appear ready to comply.

Seventeen states have passed legislation that specifically prevents them from complying with what many are calling a de facto “national ID” law. As of press time, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had yet to issue final REAL ID technical rules.

The REAL ID Act calls on states to issue, by May 2008, drivers’ licenses backed by federally defined proof-of-identity documents that states must authenticate. The physical licenses must incorporate common machine-readable technology, and states must store and share with every other state the information they collect on each driver.

Privacy, Financial Concerns

Opponents of REAL ID cite two main problems: privacy concerns and financial issues. For certain states the privacy implications are paramount. “The very idea that Americans would need an i.d. card to travel around their own country is a huge privacy issue,” said New Hampshire state Rep. Joel Winters (D-Manchester).

For others, cost issues drive opposition. “State leaders got serious about privacy when they saw the cost of REAL ID compliance,” said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute and a member of DHS’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee.

“Some states would be more likely to go along if it were paid for,” agreed Winters, though not New Hampshire–he points out his state was offered a $3 million grant to test REAL ID and turned it down.

Red Flags

Winters and other privacy-driven opponents say REAL ID is more than a nationally standardized format for state drivers’ licenses. They say it would function as a national ID card, one that citizens would need to carry to enter federal buildings and courtrooms, to enter airports even for domestic flights, and potentially for access to any federal facility, such as a national park.

The bill calls for states to link their drivers’ license databases, ostensibly to compare records and prevent issuance of more than one license to someone. The concept of a single large linked database raises red flags from privacy advocates and security experts.

“I just haven’t seen any indication the federal government is up to the task of protecting privacy,” said Timothy D. Ringgold, CEO of Defense Solutions, based in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. He and other security experts point out a hacker breaking into a database containing home addresses and Social Security numbers would be well-equipped to carry out identity theft on a massive scale.

“It’s like putting a bull’s-eye on private information,” said Winters.

Pushback in Congress

Earlier this year Congress raised questions about the likely effectiveness of REAL ID, and both the House and Senate have bills calling for its repeal. As a result, few opponents expect the federal government to enforce the act’s provisions come the May deadline.

“It would backfire,” said Harper. He expects consumers would hold federal agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration, accountable for inconveniences they experience by lacking a REAL ID-compliant license.

REAL ID opponents want to see the act greatly altered or repealed. Simply working to delay REAL ID by extending deadlines helps support the act, said Harper, because it gives technology and security firms hoping to win lucrative REAL ID contracts more time to influence DHS and wear down states’ resistance.

False Sense of Security

Opponents want national border states such as Arizona, Michigan, and Washington to push back against REAL ID and its cousin, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which will eventually require U.S. citizens to show a passport to re-enter the country from Canada or Mexico.

Harper thinks such states might be tempted to comply with REAL ID because DHS has said compliant licenses could be acceptable border-crossing cards.

Privacy advocates and some security experts say the emphasis on proof of identity mandated by REAL ID gives a false sense of security for extreme amounts of money. They hope exposing the flaws in REAL ID will engender a freer discussion of how and where to truly increase security.

“The cost of the REAL ID Act in dollars and in lost privacy is greater than the security benefit,” said Harper.

Winters agreed, saying, “REAL ID does more harm than good.”

Sharon J. Watson ([email protected]) writes from Sugar Land, Texas.

For more information …

Jim Harper, “The REAL ID Act: An Update,” Cato Institute TechKnowledge, Issue #107, October 8, 2007:

Col. Timothy D. Ringgold, “The Real Deal,” Security Products, October 2007: