Digital IDs face opposition among states

Controversy grows over whether the Real ID Act's national identification cards will do more to stop terrorists or threaten privacy.
Written by Declan McCullagh, Contributor
CONCORD, N.H.--A forthcoming national identification card will do little to thwart future terrorist attacks and instead will endanger Americans' privacy, speakers at a conference here warned.

The digital ID card requirements, scheduled to take effect in May 2008, are likely to spark a revolt among states concerned about the complexity of the federal rules and the cost of complying with them, said Jim Babka, president of DownsizeDC.org, at the Liberty Forum conference.

Ron Paul
Rep. Ron Paul

"It's going to cost the taxpayers $11 billion, an average cost of $200 million per state," said Babka, whose organization bills itself as a "trans-partisan" effort trying to rein in the federal government.

The 2005 Real ID Act says that drivers licenses and other ID documents issued by state governments must comply with a stringent set of rules devised by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that have not yet become public. But dozens of state legislatures are debating whether to stand up to the federal government and oppose federalized IDs, a step that Maine's legislature took in a vote last month.

In an unusual twist, opposition to federalized IDs has united some state motor vehicle officials (who are worried about the cost) and civil libertarian and privacy activists (who are worried about the prospect of a national ID card). Several members of Congress have proposed delaying or repealing the Real ID Act, though Bush administration officials have been steadfast in saying the ID rules are a necessary antiterrorism measure. It's also seen as a way to limit illegal immigration.

"In states across the country, legislators are moving to reform the Real ID Act," said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute and a member of a Homeland Security advisory panel.

Harper was speaking over the weekend at the Liberty Forum, which is organized by the New Hampshire-based Free State Project. The organization's members are trying to persuade the state legislature, composed of part-time politicians, to adopt measures that lower taxes, increase privacy and limit government intrusiveness. (New Hampshire is a libertarian-leaning state that was the first to signal opposition to the Real ID Act.)

Under the Real ID Act, Harper said, privacy could be endangered by having a centralized database linked to the ID cards. "If we're operating with a single government-issued key, the penalty for wrongdoing...is that we lose our identification card, we lose our identity, we lose our ability to access the services and infrastructure that society offers." (Listen to Harper's comments on CNET News.com's Tech Politics podcast.)

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who has created a presidential exploratory committee, on Sunday took aim at what he described as his colleagues' lack of respect for privacy rights and civil liberties.

"This is what has happened in Washington," he said. "There is no rule of law. There is no respect for the Constitution." Paul was the most tech-friendly member of the U.S. Congress, according to News.com's 2006 scorecard.

Starting on May 11, 2008, Americans will need a federalized ID card--a U.S. passport will also qualify--to travel on an airplane, open a bank account, collect Social Security payments or take advantage of nearly any government service. States will have to conduct checks of their citizens' identification papers and drivers licenses likely will need to be reissued to comply with the new requirements. State motor vehicle databases also must be linked together.

The forthcoming standard IDs are required to be "electronically readable," a requirement that appears likely to be fulfilled through including a standard magnetic stripe on the back of the card that could be read by government agencies and private businesses. Another possibility is embedding a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip, which is already the case for U.S. passports.

Proponents of the Real ID Act say it's designed to implement proposals suggested by the 9/11 Commission, which noted that some of the hijackers on September 11 had fraudulently obtained state driver's licenses. But not all did: at least one hijacker simply showed his foreign passport and walked onto the airplane that day.

A 23-page report released on Monday by Janice Kephart, a former lawyer with the 9/11 Commission, defended the Real ID Act by calling it a "significant step in enhancing our national and economic security and our public safety." Kephart is now president of 9/11 Security Solutions.

States bowing out of Real ID requirements is "not the way to secure America," the report says. "Embedding identity security into state-issued (ID card) systems will take significant planning to fulfill the requirements of Real ID and significant financial resources for the 'brick and mortar' start-up costs. Congress must step up to the plate and make securing of identity documents the national priority that our citizens deserve."

Also on Monday, a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., began. The Government ID Technology Summit includes officials from states including Michigan, Maine and Massachusetts talking about the Real ID Act and digital identification.

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