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National ID card is costly, bureaucratic

2005-07-03 / Knight Ridder / By John B. Quigley

When it passed the Real ID Act in May, Congress took another step in the name of fighting terrorism, but one that may turn out to be counter-productive.

New requirements

The legislation imposes federal requirements on the states in how they issue driver's licenses. It gives the states three years to bring their driver's licenses into conformity with specified requirements.

If a state fails to comply, no person will be able to use that state's driver's license as identification for federal purposes, including "boarding any federally regulated commercial aircraft."

So if a state does not comply, its residents will not be able to fly on airplanes.

The stated purpose is to make it harder for terrorists to get a driver's license that could be used to board an airplane. Of course, states already have their own requirements for issuing driver's licenses.

It is unclear whether the Real ID Act procedures would stop a terrorist who otherwise would be able to get a driver's license.

The Real ID Act is drawing criticism from a variety of perspectives. States traditionally have been able to issue driver's licenses by rules they devise on their own. By the Real ID Act, Congress has federalized this activity.

States would have to demand from an applicant an identity document that shows full name and date of birth, a document showing residence, and proof of the person's Social Security number.

They would have to put their information on all drivers' licenses into a database that would be available to other states, and to the federal government.

No funds available

All this checking will require staff time at local driver's license agencies. State governors are concerned that the Real ID Act appropriates no funds to help the states meet these costs. The checking may also cause delays in agency offices, as applicants wait for their documentation to be verified. Staff must check the authenticity of a birth certificate.

Staff must verify with the Social Security Administration that the Social Security card shown by the applicant is valid.

Privacy groups fear that the Real ID Act will facilitate identity theft. With so much information in a single database, people intent on stealing identities will have a treasure trove if they can hack in, or if they can find a staff worker to bribe.

A number of states have already experienced problems with staff workers selling information to potential identity thieves. The single national database will be an even greater temptation.

Another matter

One matter the local driver's license agency will be required to check is that the person is not an unlawful immigrant. This will turn the states into enforcers for the federal government on immigration. A non-citizen will have to present a visa, and the staff will have to verify that the visa is valid.

One stated goal of the Real ID Act is to keep people illegally in the United States from gaining a driver's license that would let them fly on airplanes.

The Real ID Act does not prohibit a state from issuing a driver's license to an illegal migrant, but such a license be marked differently so that it will not be a document that can be used to board an aircraft.

The potential advantages to security from the Real ID Act are doubtful. The down sides are obvious. The Real ID Act may turn out to be a law we come to regret.