An abridged version of this article first appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer.
With the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles asking for more staff to help implement the Real ID Act, expect the 2008 short session to feature lively debate over whether Real ID is a nefarious conspiracy or a beneficial federal initiative. Being a conspiracy theorist myself, I am inclined to agree with the ACLU’s theory that Real ID is a “real nightmare” being used by the “Security-Industrial Complex” to implement a national ID card. The facts of the case, though, suggest otherwise.
On the surface, Real ID is a set of national standards that will make identity theft and fraud more difficult. These standards include requiring applicants for a driver’s license to provide documentation, such as a Social Security card, that proves identity and legal presence. In turn, each state must verify the legitimacy of these documents. Here in North Carolina, such verification would have prevented the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) from issuing some 27,000 licenses associated with invalid or fraudulent Social Security numbers.
Another requirement of Real ID is that states must coordinate efforts to prevent issuing multiple IDs. This includes cross-checking a photo of every applicant against an electronic database. The legislation also obliges each state to give other states access to information contained in this database. Based upon this requirement, the ACLU argues that “underneath each state’s pretty designs” lurks a scheme to “force the states to standardize driver’s licenses across the nation into a single national identity card and database.” But permitting other states to access information contained in a driver’s license database is not the same as creating a national ID database. In practice, such information sharing will permit one state to notify another when a person applies for a new license in a different state. Consider that eighteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers possessed at least thirty different driver’s licenses and IDs issued by five different states: Arizona, California, Florida, Maryland and New Jersey. Had Real ID been in effect, those hijackers unlawfully present in the United States would not have been able to obtain these IDs.
Other Real ID myths abound, such as that Real ID is a threat to personal privacy or that homeless people won’t be able to obtain a Real ID. These myths are easily dispatched by reading the actual legislation, as passed by Congress in May 2005.
To begin with, Real ID does not require the collection of additional personal information, except as is necessary to verify identity. Thus the law does not encroach upon personal privacy any more than do current identification protocols. Biometrics and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips are also not standard in Real IDs. Such chips, though, are being used in enhanced driver’s licenses (EDLs), which some border states are implementing in response to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
Real ID is also voluntary. No state is required to participate and a handful claim they will not do so. By 2014, Americans under age 50 will no longer be able to board a plane or enter a federal facility using IDs issued by these states. If you don’t fly and don’t plan on touring the White House, you don’t need a Real ID. Other secure forms of identification, such as a passport, can also be used as a substitute for a Real ID.
Finally, Real ID will not prevent homeless persons from obtaining identification. Here in North Carolina, this problem will be solved by sending IDs directly to homeless shelters. Victims of domestic violence will likewise be able to obtain an ID through their residential program.
Most important, Real ID will prevent identity theft, which has increased by nearly 800 percent over the past 6 years. Critics of Real ID, such as the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, are trying to turn this virtue into a vice by claiming that because Real IDs are more difficult to counterfeit, the new standards will create more problems for identity theft victims. This is like saying that people shouldn’t lock their doors because a thief might have to break a window to get in. The reality is that Real ID will make licenses and the databases that store them more secure. Here in North Carolina, for instance, Real ID reforms now require DMV employees involved in the verification process to be fingerprinted and to pass a criminal background check.
This is not to say that Real ID does not have costs. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Real ID will cost an additional $8 per license. Senator Clark Jenkins, vice chair of the Transportation Committee, believes implementing Real ID will run North Carolina $20 million – 0.01 percent of the current state budget. Some of this will be covered by $360 million in grants from DHS; the rest will have to be funded by the state. Still, identity theft costs U.S. citizens $68 billion annually. For the 300,000 victims of identity theft in North Carolina each year, $8 a license might seem like a bargain. Even more to the point, Real ID will save American lives. If this is a conspiracy, I am all for it.