A new federal law states that a driver's license that is "REAL ID compliant" will be the only acceptable driver's license you can use to prove your identity when boarding an airplane.
Dubbed REAL ID, this national standardization of driver's license systems can't be forced onto states. But the penalties for noncompliance are steep. In this case the penalty is barring people without a REAL ID from flying and from entering any federal buildings, such as a courthouse, Social Security Administration office or the office of an elected federal official.
"Since most people's primary form of identification is their driver's license, it's a significant penalty," says Chris Calabrese, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) Technology and Liberty Program.
The ACLU doesn't believe the estimated $96 driver's license fee to be paid by everyone applying for a license will cover the total cost, estimated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at $24 billion. Congress has allocated $40 million, leaving the rest up to the states.
Join the database
The specifications of the REAL ID are extensive and complicated but can be boiled down to a few key points:
· All information on a driver's license must be standardized.
· A state-wide database must collect all required information and share it into a national database accessible by every state.
· Digital photos of all people applying for driver's licenses must be taken and kept regardless of whether or not they receive IDs.
· Every person who holds a driver's license is required to return to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) with their "breeder" documents proving their identity -- birth certificate, social security card, green card, etc. -- and their address -- bank statement, utility bill, etc
· The BMV must verify every breeder document with the issuing agency.
So far seven states have passed laws rejecting REAL ID, 10 are in the process of passing some form of rejection or opposition and 11 have some form of opposition legislation drafted but not yet voted upon. Ohio has introduced a resolution opting out but it hasn't been voted on in ether house.
"This state rebellion has shocked DHS," Calabrese says. "They were not expecting states to fight back so vigorously. I would be surprised if DHS told citizens of half a dozen states that they couldn't get on an airplane. But that's the threat: DHS continues to maintain that they are not going to let anyone on a plane without a REAL ID-compliant license.
"I just can't imagine the airline industry is going to allow losing a quarter of their customer base because Congress can't pass a law that makes sense and DHS can't implement it. You're going to have to see a change in REAL ID."
The idea of standardizing and cleaning up the issuance of driver's licenses might make sense to some people -- isn't it better to all have the same thing, as we do with passports? The ACLU argues that the threat to personal privacy is too great to justify this kind of standardization (visit www.realnightmare.org).
"It does make things simpler if you have more consistent information," Calabrese says. "That's exactly what REAL ID does. Consistency of information is not necessarily a virtue, especially when it comes to our privacy. REAL ID, in our minds, is a national ID card. Suddenly all this standardization works to aggregate all that private information about you. ... It's got all (of) your driver's license information; it's got your birth certificate because they're going to scan all of those identity documents -- your social security number."
While some states have privacy laws that allow individuals to keep a social security number off a license -- or a home address for victims of domestic violence or stalking -- the expectation is that these laws will be overridden by the required national standard.
"And all of this information in a giant database accessible to any BMV agent anywhere in the country," Calabrese says. "The system only becomes as strong as its weakest link. If you put aside the insiders, you have identity thieves. This is an identity thief's dream: all your personal information in one place."
Lose one, lose all
Then there are the practical realities. The verification requirements are virtually impossible to meet. There's a proposed, but not yet built, national database of birth certificates that would make it easy for the BMV to verify their authenticity. The federal databases used by the Social Security Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have problems with inaccurate information and don't have the ability to link into other databases, such as the proposed REAL ID database. Verification of all those related documents will have to be done by hand.
"National ID is imminent in this country, but not inevitable," Calabrese says. "Individual citizens have a real opportunity to fight the national ID card. That battle's happening right now. Nobody's saying we shouldn't have ID. There's no problem with having a variety of different ID cards for different purposes, whether they're driver's licenses, passports or student IDs. Actually, those are more secure than a national ID card because, if you lose your driver's license, you haven't lost the information that's on your passport or your student ID. You're actually limiting the amount of information, the damage. ... With the national ID card, you lose it all."
The ACLU of Ohio hosts Chris Calabrese for "UnReal: What the New National ID Means for You" at 7 p.m. Oct. 24 at St. John's Unitarian Universalist Church in Clifton. For more information, visit www.acluohio.org or call 216-472-2200.