A real hard act to follow
States view the Real ID Act as an unreasonable and costly challenge, but some officials see in it the glimmer of a silver lining
- By John Pulley
- Jun 26, 2006
Teresa Takai did not receive a self-destructing taped message inquiring if she would accept the mission. The Real ID Act suddenly appeared as an unfunded mandate from Congress to overhaul states’ driver’s licensing on a tight deadline.
The act, signed into law May 11, 2005, seeks to prevent illegal aliens and would-be terrorists from getting driver’s licenses. It forces states, within three years of the act’s passage, to require documentation that goes beyond what most states ask license applicants to produce: a photo identity document, documentation of birth, proof of Social Security number, and documentation of an applicant’s name and address of principal residence.
In addition, the law requires states to verify those documents and keep digital copies — two provisions that would necessitate more robust storage capacity and connections between disparate databases than most states have. Among other provisions, the Real ID Act also calls for tamper-proof, machine-readable licenses manufactured in secure areas by employees with security clearances.
The law will affect an estimated 240 million driver’s licenses. Yet with the deadline for deployment less than two years away, the federal government still has not issued technical requirements to guide states.
“We think it will be a struggle, to some degree, to even get started by then,” said Tom Jarrett, Delaware’s secretary of technology and chief information technology officer. He is also chairman of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ Real ID Work Group.
Takai, Michigan’s CIO, is in a double bind. She is in the midst of updating a 30-year-old computer system that state officials use to manage driver’s licenses. If she had the luxury of time, she would postpone the upgrade to ensure the new system’s compatibility with Real ID’s requirements. But with retirement looming for the few remaining employees who are proficient in an older technology, Takai can’t wait.
She is running two races with separate clocks and finish lines. Her strategy is to upgrade the old system and hope it will be compatible with requirements of the Real ID Act. “All we can do is guess at what we think the implementation is going to be,” she said. “If we get it wrong, we’re going to have a brand new system that we will have to go back in and change.”
Takai’s dilemma is unusually thorny, but states generally agree that implementing the Real ID Act poses big problems because of insufficient time and money. “States believe that this time frame is unreasonable, costly and potentially impossible to meet,” the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, wrote in an April letter to the Homeland Security Department.
In addition, CIOs rue the federal government’s unwillingness to seek ideas from states about how to implement the Real ID Act — an attitude that is not without precedent.
“We’re all a little bit gun shy because of the [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996] implementation,” Takai said. “The states felt we could have reduced the impact on ourselves if we had been able to work with [the Department of Health and Human Services] to define how that implementation would take place.”
HIPAA established national standards for electronic health care transactions and national identifiers for providers, health plans and employers, in part to secure the privacy of health data. “We’re sort of doing a déjà vu here,” Takai said.
Until the federal government issues requirements for new driver’s licenses, no one can say how much it will cost to implement the Real ID Act. Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer advocacy group in Washington, D.C., released a report last fall that projects a total price of $17.4 billion if the government requires radio frequency identification chips, like those embedded in new passports, to become a component of driver’s licenses.
Some state officials say mandatory inclusion of RFID in driver’s licenses seems unlikely at present. Otto Doll, South Dakota’s CIO, said that if the new licenses must have a biometric component, it would probably be fingerprints.
Even without embedded chips, however, compliance with the act will have significant costs. Some state CIOs have heard that the new licenses will be made of an expensive polycarbonate material manufactured by a single supplier. Polycarbonate is a transparent thermoplastic that is resistant to heat, cold and breakage.
Verifying and storing digital copies of applicants’ source documents won’t be cheap either. The National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS) is testing a previously discarded system that would allow states to verify applicant’s birth certificates in less than 10 seconds. The Electronic Verification of Vital Events (EVVE) was created to improve management of states’ birth records and death certificates, but the project was shelved because payments demanded by states in exchange for putting birth information in the system was more than the Social Security Administration was willing to pay.
An advisory committee of federal agencies that might use EVVE met in June to consider an acceptable pricing structure, said Garland Land, NAPHSIS’ executive director.
The Real ID Act’s requirement that states not issue a driver’s license to someone who currently holds a license in another state demands a system for cross-checking data among states’ Department of Motor Vehicles offices. They would most likely use pointer systems, similar to an online sex offender registry, Doll said. Unlike the Social Security Administration’s centralized database of Social Security numbers, the national sex-offender public registry connects data from multiple sources.
If states are required to store digital images of applicants’ documents for as long as 10 years, storage capacity and costs will further strain states’ resources. “We are nearing the petabyte stage in the little state of Wisconsin,” said Matthew Miszewski, the state’s CIO. “They better give us some money. Space ain’t free.”
Acquiring equipment to make the licenses, securing the license-manufacturing area, screening workers and adding employees to handle the influx of customers at state DMV offices are expected to increase costs.
Financial issues aside, state CIOs say they desperately need clear directives from the federal government to begin implementation and avoid potential compatibility problems. “There is no lack of creativity as to how you could accomplish the goals outlined in the act,” Miszewski said. “Without guidance, you will have 50 different systems.”
The challenges will vary throughout jurisdictions. California, with more licensed drivers than other states, faces a volume issue that Doll said will require a major effort to implement the new law. His state has a different concern. Seventy percent of South Dakota’s land area falls under the U.S. Census Bureau’s frontier classification.
A step below the rural designation, frontier status designates population density of fewer than seven people per square mile. In the state capital, Pierre, the DMV office is open only three days a week. The rest of the time, employees go on the road to issue and renew licenses to people who are nowhere near a DMV office. The Real ID Act’s onerous requirements could kill that service, with predictable results, Doll said.
“People aren’t going to drive 200 miles” to get a license, he said.
Despite the drawbacks, the law could have a silver lining. Once the act is implemented, states will be able to offer more sophisticated digital services, said Miszewski, who envisions a system of cross-functional identification that will analyze customer transactions and offer additional services as needed.
As it is now, a family that moves to Wisconsin and wants to take a vacation at one of the state’s lakes must make several stops to acquire necessary licenses, including a Wisconsin driver’s license, state tags for the car, a boat license and, depending on the craft’s size, a license for the trailer on which it sits.
“We don’t do a very good job of customer-services relation management,” Miszewski said. “The opportunity to create digital identities for citizens in the state is for state CIOs…the key to the kingdom.”
Pulley is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.