Real Problems with the REAL ID

It’s been nearly three years since Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which established federal standards for the issuance of state driver’s licenses and identification cards. In January, the Department of Homeland Security finally published regulations to implement the law, and today the Senate Judiciary Committee is having a hearing with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on the REAL ID implementation.

The law’s basic goal is to make the driver’s license a more reliable assertion of identity by making it tougher to get fake driver’s licenses or hold multiple licenses from different states. This is a laudable goal, but creating a central repository of ID information raises some serious civil liberties and privacy concerns.

Real Problem #1:

The REAL ID act calls for a national system that tightly links the records of all drivers and state ID card holders—virtually every American. As a “one stop shop” of highly sensitive personal information, including social security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and dates of birth, this central ID system would be an irresistible treasure trove for identity thieves, terrorists, and other computer criminals.

Real Problem #2:

Identity thieves are not the only ones who would have incentive to look at this information. The government and big business would be able to access this personal information, with tremendous potential for abuse. There have been news reports in recent years that some businesses are already collecting personal data from driver’s licenses without patrons’ consent using commonly available readers. A national standard would make this even easier.

Real Problem #3:

The legal framework to handle these issues is weak at best. Existing federal privacy and security laws would place some limitations on the federal government if the system were run by DHS or otherwise deemed a “federal” system. However, the REAL ID system is likely to be run by a private organization, in which case federal privacy and security laws may not apply. Allegedly, the Department of Transportation and other federal agencies already regularly access the privately managed commercial driver’s license database with virtually no oversight, a frightening model for a national driver’s license database.

Clearly, the REAL ID Act leaves significant potential for identity theft, loss of private information, and infringements on individual’s privacy. Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff needs to address these issues before implementation of the Act begins.