[update: I’ve updated this post to reflect some additional thoughts. Those changes are bracketed and in blue font and are notated with the word “update.” Additionally I’ve corrected a number of typos and grammatical errors – and I’ll correct more as they are detected. //Jim]
I’ve been asked several dozen times in recent weeks what I think of the so-called Real-ID act.
The short answer is: I’m not entirely opposed to it.
The longer answer, however, is that while I think the intention of Real ID is sound, its method of adoption into law without public discourse and review by our elected representatives is totally unacceptable. The act, as originally written, leaves a lot of questions unanswered and failed to address the legitimate concerns of American citizens and lawful foreign guests in this country. And because of its vagueness, the Real ID act has given rise to some completely unhinged hysteria within the ranks both conservatives and liberals alike, if for different reasons (Believe me, researching this subject was an exercise in batshit crazy in many cases. Whoa). However, the Department of Homeland Security has, since 2005, done a credible job of addressing the legitimate concerns of the American population and the Final Rule as it stands right now is, for the most part, a workable compromise.
Real-ID, for those of you not familiar with the subject, is a federal law that requires states to comply with specific guidelines for security, authentication, and issuing procedures for state driver’s licenses and state issued ID cards. Only identification that complies with Real-ID standards will be accepted by federal agencies as legitimate. Specific examples of where Real-ID compliant identification would be required are things like commercial air travel and entering federal buildings. Additionally the law implements a number of other identification related actions, such as: Changing work visa limits for specific groups and professions, creates new rules governing “delivery bonds” (which are like bail bonds but for accused non-citizens who have been released pending trial), updates and tightens regulations regarding application for asylum and deportation (specifically those accused here or abroad of terrorist activity), and waves existing laws that limit or interfere with the construction of barriers at border crossings. Because of the controversy surrounding the act, implementation was delayed until 2008 and then pushed back until 2013 (which is where it stands right now). Congress may repeal or modify the law with a new proposal called Pass-ID, proposed by the Obama administration and supported by a number in Congress on both sides of the aisle.
Much of the controversy surrounding Real-ID comes from how it became law. The act, which originated in the House as H.R. 418, was introduced by James Sensenbrenner (R-WI). It passed the House, but then went stagnant. Not to to be deterred, Sensenbrenner then attached it as a rider, 368-58, to H.R. 1268, the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief, 2005. Because of the emergency nature of H.R. 1268 (the bill provided money for combat troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan and opposition was seen as unpatriotic), there was considerable pressure on Congress to get it passed. The Real-ID rider was not discussed in any detail either by Congress or in public review. The Senate passed the joint House-Senate conference report with a vote of 100 Yes and 0 Opposed and the 109th Congress forwarded it to the president for signature. President George W. Bush. signed H.R. 1268 and the Real ID Act into law on May 11, 2005.
An HTML version of the pertinent portions of the Final Rule and its amendments as they stand right now, can be found here, on the Department of Homeland Security website. Note: There are a number of versions of the Real-ID Act text floating around the Internet. The HomeSec version I’ve linked to is the version you want to read. The Secretary of Homeland Security is responsible for implementing the rule and this is the final version, including responses to public comments, that HomeSec is operating under. The other versions are irrelevant, so is arguing about them.
Your papers please, mein herr!
The principle opposition to Real-ID seems to be the sentiment that it creates a national identification card, reminiscent of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Naturally, American are repulsed by this idea.
There is some small grain of truth to this notion – but most of it is based on hysteria, and any similarity to the “papers” issued by the Nazis or the Soviets is purely superficial.
Real ID compliant licenses and ID’s would not be issued by the federal government, but by your state of residence, exactly the same as they are right now and always have been. The difference being that the state agency issuing them will be required to adhere to strict federal guidelines for issuance and identification of the person receiving the identification.
In principle, this is no different than the American Express, Visa, or Debit cards in your wallet right now. It is no different from the checks you carry in your checkbook. Each are issued by your local bank of choice, but they all are required to comply with basic federal banking standards for format, personal information, identification, standardization, security, and machine readability. Any credit card or check that does not comply with these standards cannot and will not be accepted by any federally issued institution. And it’s the same here, Real ID does not dictate in any way where you live or limit your right to move about as you please. It does limit your access to certain forms of transportation and certain federal buildings – exactly the same as identification does now. You cannot board a plane now without proper ID – and frankly if you can’t identify yourself, or there is some question of who you actually are, I don’t want your ass on the plane with me and my family. I have to present proper identification to access a military base. You have to present ID to visit your mother in prison, or enter the court building to post her bail, or to get married, or to cash a check, or when you get pulled over for acting like an idiot on the road. Real ID doesn’t change any of that at all, not one iota other than to mandate that the identification you present complies with certain standards. And in fact, because of those standards and the fact that Real ID moves the onus of verification to agencies specifically delegated to perform that task, it speeds up the process of identification in places where it’s required – say like the security line at the airport. Your name comes up on the No-Fly list by accident, how do you prove that you’re not that guy in a timely fashion? You don’t, now. But with a Real ID card it’s a simple matter and you don’t even have to sit in a holding cell while they figure it out. That’s one example, there are many more.
The standards imposed by Real ID would require issuing agencies to verify the identity of each person receiving an ID through birth certificates, social security numbers, proof of residence, and proof of legal status for non-citizens, and an electronic photo. The issued Real ID compliant card, at a minimum, must include the person’s full name, signature, data of birth, gender, driver’s license number or identification card number. It also includes a digital photograph of the person's face and the address of principal residence. It is required to have physical security features designed to prevent tampering, counterfeiting, or duplication of the document for fraudulent purposes. Additionally, each card must be machine readable using a common technology as specified by the department of homeland security.
Now, few of these requirements are anything new. The requirement to present proof of identification, i.e. birth certification and so on, is required in almost all states as part of the initial driver’s licensing process that most 16-year olds go through. And if it’s not, it should be. Seriously here, I don’t get the complaint – the one that says Real ID requirements will make it harder for people to obtain fraudulent driver’s licenses and that’s somehow a bad thing. Oddly the people screaming the loudest about this are the same ones jumping on the “Obama isn’t a real American because he hasn’t shown his real birth certificate” bandwagon. They’re also the people pissing and moaning the loudest about all the illegal immigrants flooding our country with state driver’s licenses and fake American id’s. Illegal immigrants and criminals and, yes, terrorists, and other such types seek out states with lax standards, they have networks and webpages that point others in the right direction. Those opposed to Real-ID are the same people most opposed to illegal immigration, a dichotomy I find curious. The hypocrisy is obvious, they want strict laws and standards of identification for funny looking foreign people, but not for themselves.
I see absolutely nothing wrong or unconstitutional about requiring states to make positive identification before issuing an ID card. In fact, I’m all for it. [update: allow me to say that I’m not sure that Real-ID as it stands right now will accomplish that. I have strong doubts about it]
Another major point of opposition is the the requirement that Real ID cards be “machine readable.”
A large number of conspiracy types and those prone to the hysteria spawned by radio talk show hosts take this to mean each card will contain an RFID (Radio Frequency ID) chip similar to those used in anti-theft tags and contemplated for use in the new US passports. RFID chips can be read from a distance using a scanner like those anti-theft gateways you see in the exits of Wal-Mart and Home Depot. The concern here is twofold: 1) the government can track real-ID cards without the owner’s knowledge simply by placing RFID readers at critical places, and 2) a criminal with a scanner could lift your information and steal your ID without you even knowing it simply by scanning a crowd from a distance.
In the first case, I’ve got news for you, the government can track your ass now. Any competent law enforcement agency or private investigator or the National Security Agency can pull up your credit card transactions or the location of your cell phone or the location of your On-Star equipped SUV and figure out what you’re up to with little or no trouble at all. There are other methods. Very, very few Americans nowadays don’t leave electronic tracks in the system. Trust me here, I used to do this for a living. If the government wants to track your every movement, they will with or without RFID. [update: but the truth of the matter is that in most cases you simply aren’t as interesting as you think you are. The government has neither the interest nor the manpower nor the assets to track every citizen.]
In the second case, any criminal who wants to steal your ID can do so now. ID theft is easy. There are a hundred ways to do it, thousands. Real ID and RFID doesn’t make it any easier, but it might in fact actually make it harder. If your ID requires a PIN or thumbprint to access for example, just like your ATM card. [update: what I mean here is that I’d be more supportive of Real-ID or any federally mandated identification program if the cards contained technology similar to public/private encryption. Think of how safety deposit boxes work, you need both the bank’s key and your own key to access the contents. I’d be more supportive of Real ID cards if they required some kind of key on the owner’s part to unlock the data, like a PIN does for an ATM card]
And while we’re on the subject of RFID, there is a rather vocal bunch that takes the phrase “machine readable” in the Real-ID Act to mean the government is going to inject RFID chips into all American citizens, the way you’d chip a pet. I’ve actually seen online petitions that you can sign to protest this, nonexistent, course of action. That’s ridiculous and there is no, repeat no, initiative to chip citizens – though another vocal bunch does advocate chipping for immigrants.
Here’s the kicker folks, the Real-ID Act specifies that Real-ID compliant identification be “machine readable” only, and leaves the implementation up to DHS. DHS in the Final Rule has specified that the machine readable technology incorporated into the cards will be a standard barcode – which more than 40 states already include on their licenses.
What will be included in the barcode? Only the information on the front of the license, i.e. name, address, age, license number, and so on. This allows a cop to scan the card and verify that the information on the front matches the barcode information and that the ID hasn’t been tampered with.
No word yet from the conspiracy nuts on whether or not they think the government will be branding us with barcodes.
The Mark of the Beast
I suppose this is as good a place as any to address another bit of lunacy.
A rather large number of folks are convinced that President Obama is, indeed, the actual biblical Anti-Christ as foretold in the Book of Revelations. They are convinced that Real-ID will be a form of universal identification as also foretold. This is where the RFID implantation paranoia comes from, so far as I can tell. These folks are convinced that “Obama will have a chip implanted in our hands or foreheads,” i.e. the mark of the Beast. Once that’s done, well, you know what comes next – The End Times.
I actually know people who believe this. No, really believe this. They are deathly afraid that The End Times are upon us, Obama is the Anti-whoois, and the Rapture and last battle are coming. They are frightened to death. Absolutely terrified. Nothing I can say will convince them otherwise.
These people are nuts.
I don’t know any other way to put it. They are just plain goofy. I cannot respect their beliefs in any way. I can barely listen to it without laughing in their faces.
They’re not alone however, the internet is full of them. The churches are full of them. Click on that link, over one hundred million sites worldwide dealing with this exact subject.
There is no chip.
There is no mark.
None of this was President Obama’s idea – and, in fact, the Real ID act was proposed by a staunch Conservative, passed by a Conservative majority Congress, and signed into law by Conservative Devoutly Fundamentalist Christian President – all long before Obama took office. President Obama is, in point of fact, opposed to the Real ID act and his administration has proposed a much less stringent modification to the law called Pass ID which would repeal nearly every facet of Real ID that that the fundamentalists have a problem with.
If anything, the religious end-times fearing types should be supporting President Obama.
But, when you’re cowering under the bed, pissing your jammies over made up bogeymen in the closet, I guess there’s not much I can say to convince you to act like a rational adult, is there?
Bottom line, this entire argument of the Anti-Christ and the Mark of the Beast is silly childish bullshit that needs not be entertained in the discussion of Real-ID.
There are legitimate concerns here:
Cost. Implementation of Real-ID requirements is projected to cost anywhere between $11 billion and $50 billion for start up and billions to maintain annually – per state. States don’t have the money. Hell, California alone could go bankrupt attempting implement this program with their vast number of drivers – and huge population of illegal immigrants. There is federal money available however, to help offset some of the cost. DHS has specified a staggered implementation of the program, i.e. only those most likely to have false ids based solely on age (16-50) will be required to get a Real ID at first, the rest of the population at a later date. There are other methods to defray the cost of startup, as outlined in the Final Rule.
Cost. It is very likely that a large amount of the cost will be transferred directly to the those attempting to get new licenses and ID’s. The cost of a driver’s license is likely to double. Some believe this will place an undue burden on the already overtaxed poor.
Privacy. There is a significant concern regarding the security of information contained in interlinked national databases. Anyone with access, literally tens maybe hundreds of thousands of state and federal employees across the nation, would have access to all the information. A single unscrupulous individual could steal or access the personal information of millions. The probability of this happening is almost 100%. [update, Vince, who is an expert on database implementation, has a response to this exact issue up on his own site, Reality Is Frequently Inaccurate, that deals specifically with database vulnerabilities and why this alone should kill Real-ID dead in its tracks. It’s definitely worth the read.]
Privacy. Currently certain states allow issue of licenses without certain personal information such as addresses in order to protect victims of domestic abuse. The Real-ID act makes no similar provision.
Religious Freedom. Currently all states allow an exemption to the photo ID requirement on the grounds of religious belief, i.e certain Muslim sects do not allow woman to expose their faces for pictures. These people are exempt from having a picture on their license. The Real ID act makes no similar provision.
Increased Wait. It is unlikely, at least at first, that you will be able to get a license on the same day you apply for it. Verification of your documentation will likely take several days, or even weeks and could end up being similar to applying for a passport. This period may diminish over time as the system becomes more streamlined, then again it may not.
Totalitarianism. Many, many folks see Real ID as a gateway to a national ID. They worry that even if the current law is reasonable and the intention behind it is from the best of motives, there will be those who, with the best of intentions or even for nefarious purposes, expand the system into a pervasive program that governs all aspect of our lives. From gun registration and ownership, to regulating who can buy cigarettes, to tracking what we eat and buy and wear and watch. Some have expressed concern that the nation will divide into those who have Real-ID and those who do not, those who can access government or private services and those who cannot. They fear that like social security numbers, Real-ID might expand far beyond its original intention and become a requirement simply to be an American.
They very well may be right.
Adequate safeguards must be put in place to address these concerns. I don’t think they’re there yet. They may never be.
There are many more concerns, some major, some minor, some real, some completely imagined. The ACLU, whatever you think of them, has a very good breakdown of all these issues here.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not entirely opposed to Real ID. I think the current hodge-podge of state licensing is long, long overdue for an overhaul and standardization. I expect my government to provide certain protections to its citizens, one of those being that the guy sitting next to my son on an airplane is really Bob Winkle of Smelly Cheese, Wisconsin and not Jugdish Almeani, terrorist fanatic from Bumfuckastan here in this country illegally and with malice in his heart. I think the arguments that Real ID makes it too hard to get fake ids or cheat on your taxes or is the mark of some bogeyman from the depths are stupid and silly and deserve no respect whatsoever. I do think think that costs, and privacy, and limitations to the program are significant and legitimate concerns. I think the concern that Real ID might further exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots is a very real and very likely outcome – you can see it happening right now with those who can’t afford a cell phone, or don’t use debit cards, or don’t have a fixed address, or have no access to the internet.
I’d be interested in hearing what you think, all of you, both the regular commenters and the many of you who lurk around this site without joining in. I’m interested in what those of you who are not Americans think, and what systems of identification you use – I see a number of regular readers from Canada and Australia and Germany and the UK and Mexico and I’m interested in your opinion.
Please feel free to comment.
[update: understand something here, I am not advocating for the implementation of Real-ID. This post may appear that I am. I’m not. I simply wanted to write an article and examine the issue free of the hysteria and false information that is common to this topic.
As it currently stands I’m against Real-ID. I’m not against the idea, however I don’t think it can be properly implemented.
I’m against it primarily because I don’t think the program can adequately protect the privacy and personal information of the population. And in fact, for exactly the reasons Vince described in his post (linked to above and in the comments section) I don’t think the Real-ID databases can ever be secured to any reasonable degree. Implementation as it stands right now is robbing Peter to pay Paul. The costs (both monetary and personal liberty wise) to implement and maintain the program far, far outweigh the benefits at this point. Frankly I don’t think we’re getting enough bang for our buck.
I don’t think that Real-ID does anything whatsoever to protect the average American against terrorism, which is the entire justification for it in the first place and its only reason for existence.
However, say the process does increase the safety of the average American with regards to terrorist actions and maybe cuts down on some illegal immigration issues (for the sake of argument, not that I actually think it will do either), it absolutely will make the average American more vulnerable to domestic crimes such as ID theft. And in the final analysis the vast majority of Americans are far, far more likely to be the victims of domestic crime than they ever are of foreign or even domestic terrorism.
America has terrorism on the brain, we need to get over it.
As to the concept of a National ID, frankly I don’t give a fig. I don’t understand the hysteria, and I don’t see how a National ID is any different whatsoever than the Military ID I carry in my wallet or my state Driver’s License]