Is REAL ID a Threat?

Civil libertarians have been up in arms about the new REAL ID law that was passed by Congress with little debate in 2005. Thus far, many states have revolted against the REAL ID requirements and the Department of Homeland Security has given every state in the country an extension from the original May 11 deadline until the end of 2009, whether they requested it or not.

Civil Libertarians have raised a wide variety of objections to the bill, which would require state issued IDs to meet certain standards to be accepted for “federal purposes,” such as boarding an airplane, entering a federal courthouse or going into a nuclear power plant. State IDs would be required to have your home address and other personal information such as name and birthday on them, both in printed form and in a barcode on the back. States have to ensure that people who get IDs are legal citizens or residents and require documentation to prove that applicants are not illegal immigrants. States are also required to verify the source documents that applicants use to prove their identity through federal databases and to meet security standards to offices that issue IDs and databases that hold ID information.

Finally, the DHS argues that REAL ID is necessary to prevent terrorism. They note that is was recommended by the 9/11 commission and that the 9/11 hijackers were able to obtain fraudulent drivers licenses.

Privacy advocates and civil libertarians have objected. Vehemently. They think that REAL ID is essentially a national ID card, that it will do relatively little to prevent terrorism, that it will be difficult and expensive for states to implement, that it will create longer lines and more bureaucratic delays for consumers, it will increase the risk if identity theft, that it will allow companies to gather personal information without permission and that it will expand over time and come to threaten more of our civil liberties. They raise the prospect of government thugs stopping people on the street and demanding to see their “papers,” and idea that is abhorrent to most Americans.

How valid are these concerns? How beneficial will REAL ID and what will its costs be? Its a little difficult to tell a the moment. DHS has done a truly terrible job advocating for the law. They have taken the position that because it was passed, that’s it. “No more debate, no more airing of concerns, no nothing. We’re implementing it and thats final.” On the rare occasions that they do engage the debate they don’t much more that repeat “terrorism, terrorism, terrorism,” which, given the credibility of the Bush administration of terrorism issues, isn’t terribly reassuring to activists. They haven’t made credible arguments for REAL ID and have allowed a grassroots movement to galvanize around opposition to REAL ID.

But that’s a shame. From everything I’ve read on REAL ID it seems like a pretty reasonable law to me.

The REAL ID act does create a national standard for national ID cards. But its not as though it creates a new federal database or allow the federal government to collect more information. As the DHS says:

“The Federal Government is not issuing the licenses, is not collecting information about license holders, and is not requiring States to transmit license holder information to the Federal Government that the Government does not already have (such as a Social Security Number). Most States already routinely collect the information required by the Act and the proposed regulations.”

That is not a national ID. There are fears that down the road the government will begin require biometric identifiers on IDs, or require RFID chips in IDs. Those are real issues and I’d fully agree that such measures would be significant privacy violations and should be opposed if they are proposed. But that’s not is being proposed.

A national ID card is a scary prospect. It raises the spectre of totalitarian governments where jackbooted thugs stop citizens randomly and demand to see their papers. But REAL ID isn’t that. It would be required for federal functions that IDs are already required for, such as entering federal courthouses, getting on airplanes and the like. Thats just not all that threatening to me.

As for the REAL ID opponents contention that the IDs won’t anything to prevent terrorism. I’d agree that REAL ID won’t be an panacea. But it is a valuable improvement. The 9/11 hijackers were able to get drivers licenses fraudulently and used them to get on airplanes. A fraudulently obtained drivers licenses dramatically reduces the chances of terrorists be caught in a random traffic stop or other routine activity, such as when the millennium bombers were caught trying to cross the Canadian border. It increases their ability to move around the country and reduces the chances they will be caught. Will REAL ID prevent all terrorism? No. But it can be a valuable tool to attempt to stop it.

The argument that REAL ID will be a huge burden on states is much stronger. It will be costly to implement and the federal government isn’t funding it. But the federal government gives states unfunded mandates all the time and there is relatively little complaint. Modernizing their drivers license issuing procedures certainly seems like something states ought to pay for, but the feds really should provide help to the states on the standardization. However, overall, this seems like an awfully thin complaint to shelve the entire bill on.

The ACLU’s complaint about lines and bureaucratic delays also seems pretty valid.

Will mean higher fees, long lines, and bureaucratic nightmares for individuals. Because Congress ordered but did not pay for these mandates, which will cost states billions of dollars, fees on individuals applying for driver’s licenses will inevitably rise, perhaps steeply. Individuals are also likely to confront slower service, longer lines, and frequent bureaucratic snafus in obtaining these ID cards. Many unlucky individuals will find themselves caught in a bureaucratic nightmare as they run up against the complexities of this law.

Along a similar line, the group UnRealId argues:

Ready to renew your license? No matter how long you’ve had your drivers license, you’ll have to get ahold of a Social Security Card with your full legal name on it (Married? Better fix your maiden name!), a certified copy of your birth certificate, and a ton of other documents just to renew or replace your license. Don’t have them? That’s your problem.

Will there be delays and difficulties in implementing REAL ID? Of course. It’s a complicated law and there will be implementation problems. However, I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for documents like Social Security Cards, birth certificates and utility bills to verify that the information that you’re getting put on a legal ID is real. Also, it seems reasonable to say that as we are transitioning to more secure IDs we should ask people to prove who they. If all you needed to get a new, supposedly more secure ID is an old idea you’ve gotten fraudulently, then thats not really a secure ID. These concerns are legitimate and people certainly will have some problems getting the new IDs, but I don’t think its a reason to scrap the law.

As for security and identity theft concerns, they are certainly legitimate. But drivers license databases are already “one stop shops” for potential identity thieves. Security is needed for all databases that have our personal information in it. The REAL ID act mandates tougher security at DMVs and other places that personal information is stored. Is it enough? Probably not. Databases will always be breached, but we need to be vigilant about protecting them.

The last concrete argument made by REAL ID opponents is that private companies can get personal information off of the bar codes on the back of the cards and use it to build marketing databases. I’d be more that fine with a law banning the harvesting of personal information off of ID cards. It is a concern, but not a huge one to me. Marketing companies already have tons of ways to get personal information. It just doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

The biggest argument that REAL ID opponents make is the slippery slope argument. Will REAL ID, as the ACLU argues:

Will expand over time. The Real ID database will inevitably, over time, become the repository for more and more data on individuals, and will be drawn on for an ever-wider set of purposes. Its standardized machine-readable interface will drive its integration into an ever-growing network of identity checks and access control points – each of which will create new data trails that will in turn be linked to that central database or its private-sector shadow equivalent.

There is a real risk that REAL ID will start us down a slippery slope. We obviously need to be vigilant about attempts to collect more information from us, such as fingerprints or iris scans, which people have brought up. We need to be vigilant about proposals to put tracking devices like RFID chips or GPS devices in IDs. We need to guard against increase identity checks and ID controlled access to public places. We should resist all attempts to require IDs for all federal buildings or the government taking away the option to submit to a search if you don’t have IDs. Threats to civil liberties are real and we do need to watch out for violations.

But REAL ID doesn’t do any of those things. It standardizes the collection of information that the government already has. The federal and state government already has all the information that is on a REAL ID and more, just from your tax return. Although there will be some linking of state databases under REAL ID, there is no national database. The Federal government already has access to the individual state databases. This is not an intrusion on individual liberties. Plus, there are real anti-terrorism benefits to standardizing IDs. The 9/11 Commission was right that fraudulent IDs are a problem. REAL ID won’t stop all terrorism. But the 9/11 conspirators would have been more likely to be caught if they couldn’t have gotten valid drivers licenses.

Given the fact that the government already has all the information that is on a REAL ID, it doesn’t seem like a big intrusion into liberty to me. And given the potential terrorism fighting benefits that it has, it just doesn’t seem like a big deal that we should oppose. Further steps down the slippery slope should be fiercely opposed, but REAL ID as currently put together just doesn’t seem to be a threat.

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