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Real ID: Intrusive, Unnecessary, Costly

Opinion Editorial
December 14, 2006

By Mike Krause

How do you feel about the prospect of having to painstakingly document who you are next time you get a driver’s license, and then do the same thing five years later when you have to renew?

That’s the burden that would be placed on Americans under the federal Real ID law passed in 2005 and scheduled to go into effect in 2008.

The act requires – among many other things – that motor vehicle departments verify, copy and store both in paper and electronic form all the foundation documents such as the birth certificate and Social Security card required to prove your identity, and to keep those records for up to 10 years.

The law would be a threat to privacy, wouldn’t fulfill its goal of fighting terror and would create huge costs for state governments.
States and the new Congress need to do everything they can to prevent this mess from happening.

When creating the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, Congress specifically denied the new agency any authority to develop “a national identification system or card.” But it is hard to see Real ID as anything other than an end-run around that prohibition.

Rather than allow any debate over a federal takeover of a well-established state function, the act’s Republican sponsors attached Real ID to the final House version of a supplemental spending bill for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for tsunami relief, thus ensuring passage and the president’s signature in May 2005.

Once the act goes into effect in May 2008, you will basically have to justify your existence to obtain or renew your license, and then rejustify yourself every five years.

“The days of going to the DMV and getting your license on the same day are probably over; you will have to take all your documents as if you are applying for the first time,” says David Quam, director of federal relations for the National Governors Association, about Real ID.

Under this system, the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles would become little more than an identity management office for Homeland Security, and Colorado lawmakers (and Coloradans) will have little or no say as to how driver’s licenses are issued, what information will be attached to the licenses or how that information will be used.

Identity theft is already a significant national problem, driven in part by continuing federal mandates for use of Social Security numbers as identification.

Social Security numbers are the key to successful identity theft. Recently, thieves in Pennsylvania broke into a driver’s license center and stole license- making materials and computers containing the DMV data on more than 11,000 license-holders.

Real ID will make DMV offices a central repository for identity documentation and verification, and therefore make them even juicier targets for identity thieves.

Real ID is touted as a tool against terrorists and illegal immigration, but with a little scrutiny, these arguments quickly fall apart. In 2005, the act’s sponsor, then-House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, inadvertently made the case against Real ID: “The 9/11 hijackers could have used their passports to board the planes, but only one did.” The rest of the hijackers used driver’s licenses and state ID cards instead.

So had Real ID been in effect prior to Sept. 11, and had Real ID denied any of the hijackers a U.S. driver’s license (most of the hijackers had legitimate licenses, and those who did not simply bribed DMV employees to obtain a license), they could have simply boarded those planes using their passports.

More to the point, identification security’s only real strength is that it tells you who people are. The fundamental flaw is that identification cannot predict intent.

“Identification is a powerful force for willing participants in our economy and society, but it will generally have little influence over terrorists,” says Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute and a board member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee.

As Harper notes, “Examples are legion in terrorism, and routine in crime, of people with no history of wrongdoing being the ones who act. For the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda selected operatives without records of involvement in terrorism.”

Beyond the inherent flaws in identification security, Real ID begs a bigger question: How much more are Americans willing to change their way of life to make way for a security state?

Real ID is an example of domestic security overreaction, giving Homeland Security more power and influence and leaving the rest of us with more bureaucracy in our lives, and an illusion of security in return.

As for illegal immigration, during the 2006 special session Colorado lawmakers passed a law requiring state agencies to verify the status of applicants for certain state services. According to the Division of Motor Vehicles, in the first month after the law went into effect, more than a thousand illegal immigrants trying to pass fake documents were denied a driver’s license.

In other words, a state law has accomplished most of what Real ID was intended for – without a massive federal mandate.

Yet even this narrowly defined law against illegal immigration has snared the law-abiding. There have recently been numerous examples of U.S. citizens being denied licenses because the state will not accept their verifying documents, including birth certificates, ID cards from other states and U.S. passports.

The good news is that those bureaucratic blunders can be addressed by Colorado lawmakers. The bad news is that in a few more years, the same people who are in charge of airport security and no-fly lists in effect will be in charge of the DMV. And the massive bureaucratization of the driver’s license process demanded by Real ID would be a significant step backward from the notion that complying with the law should be a relatively simple matter.

Like most federal mandates, Real ID comes with a cost. A recent analysis by the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators estimates that implementation of Real ID will cost states over $11 billion combined.

For example, Virginia, with a population of just over 7 million, puts the cost of implementing Real ID as high as $169 million, with an annual recurring cost of as high as $63 million.

More than just expensive and intrusive, the act is also an egregious example of federal coercion against the states.

Because Congress cannot legislate that states implement federal regulatory programs, the act denies anyone who does not carry a Real ID-compliant license after May 2008 the ability to use the license as identification for any service or activity over which the federal government claims jurisdiction, such as boarding a plane, opening a bank account or entering a federal building.

If Congress wants to create a national identity system, such a system should be reviewed through the committee process, openly debated and voted up or down on its own merits, with an honest price tag attached.

First Appeared in the Denver Post on December 14th, 2006