Congress, states and DHS face off over Real ID

Shortage of funding, privacy concerns bog down nationwide implementation plan

Minimum Standards for Driver’s licenses and Identification Cards Acceptable by Federal Agencies for Official Purposes [.pdf]

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Just when the Homeland Security Department is stepping up its efforts to make driver’s licenses more secure, federal and state lawmakers are putting up roadblocks that could severely delay, if not cancel, the program known as Real ID.

DHS issued its proposed regulations for issuing Real ID cards early this month. Those rules would require state motor vehicle departments to collect personal information, including birth certificates, from everyone who applies for a driver’s license or identification card and store it in an electronic format. That biographical information would be stored in databases that other state DMVs could access.

But instead of the regulations providing momentum for states to meet the program’s May 2008 deadline, DHS and Bush administration officials are trying to beat back efforts of lawmakers to impede the program. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), concerned about the rapidly approaching implementation deadline, introduced an amendment to push it to the end of 2009.

Others lawmakers have concluded that Real ID raises too many unanswered questions and that states shouldn’t continue with its implementation. Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) each introduced bills that would repeal the 2005 Real ID Act.

Worried about funding, Akaka said DHS’ suggestion that states use their homeland security grants to pay for implementing Real ID is unrealistic because the president’s proposed fiscal 2008 budget requests an $835 million cut in grant funding.

DHS had proposed that states use as much as 20 percent of their Homeland Security Grant Program money to cover the costs of setting up an infrastructure for Real ID and printing new licenses and cards.

“This is a hollow solution,” Akaka said. “I fail to see how states are able to implement an $11 billion program with federal homeland security grants that the Bush administration continues to cut.”

The National Governors Association estimated that states could spend up to $11 billion to meet the Real ID program’s 2008 deadline.

DHS hasn’t said how much Real ID could cost the states. The agency originally quoted a price tag of about $23 billion between now and 2013. Most of that financial burden would fall on the states.

According to published reports, Richard Barth, DHS’ assistant secretary for policy development, estimated that 10 states would be compliant with Real ID by the 2008 deadline. However, resistance from federal lawmakers may have changed the agency’s projections.

“It’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to see who’s compliant in ’08, [and] it’s going to be very difficult to make an overall estimate on cost,” said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for DHS.

Maine’s state legislature voted to reject the Real ID program. Participation would require the state to pay about $185 million for the new cards and infrastructure. At least 10 other states are debating similar initiatives.

Allen said his concerns about Real ID center on privacy. Even if states do a good job of securing their data, he said, a determined hacker or identity thief could blow the system wide open because its underlying structure is designed for sharing information among states.

“I don’t trust the security of Mainers’ personal information to a system that makes it available at any DMV in the country,” he said.

However, Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance, dismissed Allen’s privacy concerns.

“Privacy concerns are all perception and hype and no substance but carry considerable weight with state legislators because no one wants to be accused of being soft on privacy,” Vanderhoof said.

Congressional efforts to halt the program might, in the end, go nowhere. Neither Allen’s Real ID Repeal and Identification Security Enhancement Act nor Akaka’s Identity Security Enhancement Act has been scheduled for committee debate.

But recognizing states’ concerns, DHS officials announced earlier this month that states could apply for deadline extensions of up to two years.
How Real ID would workThe Homeland Security Department’s proposed Real ID regulations set six requirements with which states must comply:

  • Applicants must provide documentation that proves the identity they claim. The documentation must be verified electronically.
  • States must store information about cardholders’ identities in databases that any other state can access electronically.
  • Driver’s licenses and identification cards must include machine-readable technology such as a barcode or a magnetic strip.
  • State motor vehicle departments must submit comprehensive security plans for operating card production facilities, databases and systems to DHS for certification. 
  • Employees at motor vehicle departments must undergo name and fingerprint-based criminal and financial history checks made against state and FBI databases.
  • States must submit certification to DHS that they have complied with the regulations.

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