Real ID zips through Congress

The Senate unanimously passed an $82 billion supplemental spending measure May 10 that includes controversial driver's license reforms that would mandate minimum federal security standards for identity cards meant to improve homeland security.

The House approved last week the measure to authorize supplemental funding for the Defense Department by a 368 to 58 vote. In a written statement, Bush said he looked forward to signing the bill into law.

Many state government officials opposed inclusion of the Real ID Act in the supplemental appropriations conference report. They argue that the driver's license measures would put financially burdens on state motor vehicle offices and overload them with additional work. Civil liberties groups say the bill is anti-immigration and sets a precedent for creating a national identification database.

State government officials "have said clearly, this Real ID Act will 'impose technological standards and verification procedures, many of which are beyond the current capacity of even the federal government,'" said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in a speech last night, even though he voted for the measure. Several senators had requested that the driver's license measures be removed from the supplemental bill.

But supporters, such as Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who authored the Real ID Act, said the provisions address a number of security vulnerabilities, including issuance of driver's licenses to illegal aliens. Several of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists used driver's licenses to board planes.

"The Real ID [Act] is vital to preventing foreign terrorists from hiding in plain sight while conducting their operations and planning attacks," Sensenbrenner said in a statement following the Senate vote last night. "By targeting terrorist travel, the Real ID will assist in our war on terror efforts to disrupt terrorist operations and help secure our borders."

If signed into law, the measure would also repeal provisions for creating driver's license security standards established by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 last December. This includes disbanding a new governmental rulemaking committee that met for the first time only three weeks ago. The committee, which included state government officials, was supposed to develop minimum standards for driver’s licenses and personal identification cards by September.

According to the bill, the Homeland Security Department will be responsible for setting those standards. Under the Real ID Act, driver’s licenses and personal ID cards must include the cardholder’s legal name, date of birth, address, gender, signature, card number, digital photograph, physical security features to prevent tampering, counterfeiting or duplication and common machine readable technology with defined minimum data elements.

State motor vehicle administrators must verify the validity of at least four feeder documents, such as a Social Security card or passport, before issuing driver’s licenses or personal ID cards.

By Sept. 11, states must sign a memorandum of understanding with DHS to use the automated Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements system to verify the legal presence of a driver's license applicant who is not a U.S. citizen. States must capture digital images of applicants and electronically exchange driver histories with other states.

According to the bill, the new measures would take effect in three years, possibly affecting travel and access for some individuals. For example, federal officials could stop people from boarding a plane or entering a building if they have a driver's license or personal ID card from a state that does not comply with the federal standards.

Jason King, spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which joined other state organizations in opposing the Real ID Act, said the group is eager to work with DHS officials to fashion provisions in a fully workable state solution.

He also said several Real ID requirements are currently under way in many states. For example, 36 states already verify Social Security numbers online with the Social Security Administration, he said. All states currently capture digital images of the applicants’ faces. Many states require applicants to show three forms of valid ID when they try to get a driver’s license. And 20 states require four forms of ID as required by the Real ID Act, he said.

However, funding is an issue. "Paying for enhanced driver's license provisions is a huge concern, and it is a financial burden that that association does not believe should fall solely on the shoulders of the states," he said.

Tim Sparapani, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said his group will examine legislative, regulatory and litigation options to counter some of the Real ID Act's provisions. The group doesn’t oppose the creation of security features to limit counterfeiting or tampering of licenses or ID cards, he said. But the bill's passage is "an enormous blow to every American's personal privacy" because it creates a national database and a national ID card for the first time, allowing every state to collect and share information.

"Proponents of the bill are in full spin mode when they say it's just the states who are collecting the information," he said. "Even if the data is technically on a computer system in one location, if all the computers are interlinked, then there's a mandate to share information. That's a network. And that network is the backbone of this national identification card especially when there are no restrictions on who may access it. And the federal government has full rights of access here."

Mission creep is another worry for privacy advocates. Sparapani said no obstacles block the federal government from creating, for example, a shared registry of everyone who's purchased a firearm.

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