Real ID? Really?

Back in 2005, partly in response to the events of 9/11, the US Congress enacted the so-called “Real ID” legislation.  This was, essentially, an attempt to create a de facto national identification card by indirection, using drivers’ licenses because they are so common.  The legislation essentially requires state motor vehicle authorities to construct extensive data bases of identification information, including images of such supporting documents as birth certificates, and to adopt uniform anti-counterfeiting standards for drivers’ licenses. The deadline for completing all of this was set to December 31, 2009; citizens of states which were not in compliance would be disadvantaged, for example, by being subject to special security screening when attempting to travel by air.

This legislation was not well received by the states, about half of which have opposed the mandate; some have even passed laws forbidding their officials to comply.  Now the “Threat Level” blog at Wired is reporting that the implementation of RealID is likely to be delayed for at least a year.  Few, if any, states are currently in compliance, and several have not requested a waiver or extension of the deadline.

Beginning Jan.1, the law was supposed to have blocked anybody from boarding a plane using their driver’s license as ID if their resident state did not comport with the Real ID program. But the Department of Homeland Security is set to extend, for at least a year, the deadline of the Real ID program that has raised the ire of privacy advocates.

One of the motivations for the RealID legislation is said to be the fact that several of the 9/11 hijackers obtained genuine Virginia drivers’ licenses in false names.  But it has never been clear to me that, had the licenses been in their real names, it would have made any difference.

When the implementation of RealID was proposed, in early 2007, there was a public comment period.  I submitted the following comment to then-Secretary Chertoff:

I am writing to urge that the proposed standards for drivers’ licenses and identification cards be withdrawn, for the following reasons:

— The proposed rules in effect create a national identification card system, despite the fact that the REAL ID act specifically prohibits this.   That the proposed system would be implemented in a networked manner, rather than as a monolithic system, is merely a semantic end-run around the clear intent of the legislation.  Putting in place the monitoring apparatus of a police state is not good civic stewardship.

—  The proposed rules will impose an enormous unfunded liability on the states, with the certain result that getting a driver’s license — practically a necessity of life in the contemporary US — will become significantly more expensive, difficult, and time-consuming.

— Because the proposed rules create a specially privileged form of identification, data from the underlying data bases will be of enormous value to potential identity thieves and other criminals.   The proposed plan does not include any adequate privacy or security safeguards.

— Putting the proposed system in place will, in effect, create two classes of citizenship: those who have obtained an approved identification card; and those who cannot obtain or afford one.  That the second group will be subject to various forms of discrimination is a foregone conclusion.

The entire REAL ID program was part of an understandable, but ill-conceived and emotional. response to the events of Sept. 11.   But I am aware of no evidence that having a system, such as the one contemplated in the proposed rules, would have done anything to prevent that catastrophe.  We should be spending our time and resources on measures that will genuinely increase our security, such as better intelligence and police work.

I have not seen any evidence in the intervening years that has led me to change my mind.

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