Disclosure: I believe the REAL ID Act creates a fundamentally flawed national identification system and the Act should be repealed.
Congress has passed (and President Bush is expected to sign) H.R. 2638, a budget bill that funds federal agencies though March. The bill includes a provision granting $100 million for state implementation of the REAL ID system (on top of the $79 million in grants the Department of Homeland Security gave to states for implementation of the REAL ID Act in June.)
In May 2005, the REAL ID Act was appended to a bill providing tsunami relief and military appropriations and passed with little debate and no hearings, though members of Congress called for hearings. The REAL ID Act of 2005 mandates that state driver’s licenses and ID cards follow federal technical standards and verification procedures issued by the Department of Homeland Security, standards that even the federal government cannot meet.
The REAL ID system (pdf) also enables tracking, surveillance, and profiling of the American public through the interlinking of the motor vehicle databases of all 56 states and territories, the use of an unencrypted machine-readable zone on the state ID cards and driver’s licenses, and the ability for the system to be used for much more than the few purposes set out by the 2005 law.
H.R. 2638 grants “$50,000,000, to remain available until expended” for general implementation. It also grants $50 million “In addition, for developing an information sharing and verification capability with States to support implementation of the REAL ID Act.”
In June, DHS detailed the “verification hub” plan. “The hub will act as a central router to provide timely, accurate, and cost-effective verification to motor vehicle departments of an applicant’s source documents. States will be able to seamlessly verify the identity, lawful status and social security number of an applicant through this common interface,” DHS said.
As defined, “verification hub” is just another name for the national database DHS seeks to create by linking the motor vehicle systems of all 56 states and territories. There are 240 million driver’s license and cardholders nationwide, and their personal data would be included in this massive system if the states agree to implement REAL ID.
However, states are rebelling. In July, Lousiana became the 21st state to pass anti-REAL ID legislation and the 11th state to prohibit implementation of or funds to be spent on the national identification program. Louisiana’s law came a month after Arizona also balked at the REAL ID program. In January, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer wrote (pdf) to the governors of 17 States, stating, “Today, I am asking you to join with me in resisting the DHS coercion to comply with the provisions of REAL ID.”
The Department of Homeland Security and Secretary Chertoff have spent a lot of time pushing the REAL ID national identification system as a savior for false identification problems. In a January opinion column written by Secretary Chertoff, he urged states, companies, and the general public to embrace the national identification system because he says it is trustworthy. Secretary Chertoff said “embracing REAL ID” would mean using the one ID card to “cash a check, hire a baby sitter, board a plane or engage in countless other activities.”
Chertoff has deflected questions about the massive security hole created by embedding so much trust in one national identification card — people will trust the criminals who hand them forged cards. However, in a recent speech Chertoff agreed that the fact that REAL ID and other identification cards can be forged is a security problem:
I certainly have seen intelligence that tells me that sophisticated criminals and sophisticated terrorists spend a great deal of time learning to fabricate and forge even these improved cards. The net effect of this may be that it’s going to be harder for people on campus here to get a drink when they’re under 21, but unfortunately it’s not going to be that much harder for the most sophisticated dangerous people to counterfeit an identity card.
Secretary Chertoff seems to be undermining the federal government’s professed reason for creation a national identification system: To improve national security. You can read more about my thoughts on REAL ID in the archives.