What’s wrong with REAL ID?

Issue Vol. 10 No. 1 January 2008 By Nancy Murray, director of education, ACLU of Massachusetts

The REAL ID Act is a federal law that was introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) who claimed it was an essential terror-fighting tool. It never had a Senate hearing. Instead, it was whisked through Congress in May 2005 on the coattails of "must pass" emergency supplemental legislation providing funds for the war in Iraq and tsunami relief.

If implemented, it will lay the groundwork for a de facto national ID card which could, step by step, turn us into a "show me your papers" society.

The makings of an internal passport system
The REAL ID Act currently mandates that if a state wants its residents to be able to use their drivers licenses for federal i.d. purposes, such as entering a federal courthouse or getting on an airplane, each state Registry of Motor Vehicles must create a vast new database containing the most personal information of applicants for driver's licenses, from original copies of birth certificates to Social Security numbers and more. The state databases will interconnect and be accessible to state, federal and local government agencies.

States will have to remake their driver's licenses, create an extensive new document-storage system, and expand security measures. They will have to verify the "issuance, validity and completeness" of every birth certificate, every immigration document, every utility bill, and every other document – not just when a driver's license is first issued, but every time it is renewed as well.

The license will contain a standardized set of information backed up by the national database of ID information. It will also contain a standardized "machine-readable zone" which makes it easy for our private information to be stolen and for our movements to be monitored.

The REAL ID Act would prevent use of a non-REAL ID-compliant drivers license for identification to board planes and enter federal buildings. But that's just the beginning. Congressional proposals have already been floated about using REAL ID for voting identification, for job applications, for getting benefits like Medicaid or federal housing assistance.

As the uses for REAL ID expand, so will the tracking of Americans. How long will it be before the swipe of a REAL ID will be required for entry to office buildings? To subways and buses? And what kind of information will the barcode on the card contain?

On May 8, 2007 Jim Harper of the Cato Institute testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that REAL ID makes possible the systematic tracking of Americans based on their race since the card's 2D barcode includes the cardholder's race/ethnicity as one of the data elements. Americans have always associated national identity cards with repressive regimes that want to control movement or keep track of particular ethnic and racial groups: do we really want to go down that path?

Flawed premise, unforeseen consequences
REAL ID was supposed to make the nation secure by preventing terrorists from getting driver's licenses. But knowing the name, phone number and other information of a person who is planning a terrorist act does not by itself prevent that act. And all of the 9/11 terrorists possessed documents that would enable them to fly, even under the REAL ID regime – passports.

Critics wonder what is more likely to be impacted by the REAL ID: the plans of terrorists or the day-to-day lives and civil liberties of Americans?

How long will it take before the REAL ID databases become as unmanageable and error-riddled as the other vast databases, such as No Fly lists, that have been created in the name of fighting terrorism, and which result in the harassment of entirely innocent individuals? How long will it be before the REAL ID database is used for data mining on a hitherto unprecedented scale? Despite calls that it expressly forbid the data mining of information that would be stored in the database, the Department of Homeland Security has resisted doing so.

And what are the implications of your REAL ID card being stolen? How hard will it be for you to re-establish your identity if someone else has copies of your birth certificate and other documents?

One-stop shopping for identity thieves
We are all aware of the danger of identity theft. The TJX Company is currently facing costs of $256 million or more because hackers were able to intercept wireless transfers of customer information and gain entrance into its central databases for over a year.
Imagine what a honey pot the REAL ID will create. The personal information on all drivers will become an irresistible target for hackers, burglars, rogue officials and insider criminals. A single break in security in any of the jurisdictions with interlocking REAL ID databases could compromise the personal information of 240 million people. Clearly, the whole system will only be as secure as the state with the weakest security, making all Americans less secure, not more.

As the Association for Computing Machinery testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, "Ultimately, REAL ID provides an identity document that increases the risk of identity theft, exposes more personal data, and is a greater target for fraud and abuse."

All of this for a mere $23 billion, which is what the cost over 10 years is estimated to be, with the states picking up most of the tab. Not only will lines be longer at the Registry and tempers shorter as many people get caught in the nightmare of inflexible verification requirements. Fees will also be higher.

States are saying no to REAL ID
In 2008 states are supposed to be in compliance with the REAL ID Act if they want their residents’ drivers licenses to be acceptable for federal ID purposes. But 17 state legislatures have gone on record in opposition, either – as in the case of 7 states – by passing laws barring the appropriation of funds for REAL ID, or by passing resolutions condemning REAL ID and urging Congress to repeal it.

So far, the Identification Security Enhancement Act (S. 717) filed by Senators Akaka and Sununu which would repeal the driver's license portion of REAL ID has gone nowhere. But in late July, the Senate, by a vote of 50-44 refused to adopt an amendment that would increase funding to implement REAL ID from the current $50 million to $300 million across the states. And on the Senate floor, Senator Kerry has described it as "profoundly flawed."

Massachusetts officials have used similar language. As Attorney General Martha Coakley testified in a June 14th State House hearing on legislation opposing REAL ID, introduced by State Senator Richard T. Moore, REAL ID represents "a total loss of common sense" that is "almost logistically and financially impossible to execute," that will be "counterproductive in security terms, increase the chance for falsification of documents" and create a "horrible inconvenience to every law-abiding Massachusetts holder of a license." Not a single person testified on behalf of REAL ID at the hearing.
The hearing was a good start, but the Commonwealth has still not taken a stand against compliance with REAL ID, and members of our congressional delegation have yet to sign onto federal roll back legislation (S. 717 and H.R. 117). As the 2008 deadline approaches, Governor Patrick should be urged to go on record opposing REAL ID. With his leadership, Massachusetts can help ensure the defeat of this dangerous and unworkable program.