On May 11, 2005, President George W. Bush signed into law the “Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief.”
Hidden within the $82 billion spending package was a provision called the Real ID Act, sponsored by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. This part of the law was never openly debated in Congress, and it’s no wonder. Because for the first time in US history, it authorized creation of a national identification card.
Instead of directly mandating a standardized identification document for every American, the Real ID Act created one through the back door. The law requires driver’s licenses in all 50 states and six territories to contain standardized information that is machine-readable and linked to a central database maintained by Uncle Sam. There are 43 separate requirements in all.
The law called for driver’s licenses issued after May 11, 2008, that didn’t comply with the new standards to no longer be accepted for any federal “official purpose,” including boarding a domestic airline flight or entering a federal courthouse.
But once the Real ID Act was enacted, states began to realize that adhering to the new standards would be expensive. In 2006, the National Governors Association and two other inter-governmental organizations published a report concluding that the Real ID initiative would cost states at least $11 billion to implement. It was a massive and completely unfunded mandate foisted upon the states by Uncle Sam.
And the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) blinked. It postponed the deadline for state driver’s licenses to be compliant with the law until December 31, 2009, with a possible extension until May 11, 2011.
When the 2011 deadline approached, the DHS blinked again, and extended the deadline until October 1, 2020. Then as COVID mania was consuming America, the DHS rescheduled the deadline to October 1, 2021, and subsequently, to May 3, 2023.
You’ll never guess what happened next. Yes, on December 5, 2022, the DHS extended the 2023 deadline another two years to May 7, 2025.
But perhaps we should step back and ask ourselves: what exactly is the Real ID Act supposed to accomplish?
Here at Nestmann, we have paper and digitized clipping files that go back many years. So, we looked up the statements of supporters of the Real ID initiative to see why they believed it was important to put it into effect. And it turns out that Jim Sensenbrenner and other Real ID supporters claimed that the law would merely establish common-sense standards to ensure identity documents couldn’t be counterfeited or falsified. That, in turn, they claimed, would reduce terrorism, illegal immigration, and a host of other social ills.
But will harder-to-forge IDs stop terrorism? We might wish to think so but making sure someone is who they claim to be doesn’t prove they won’t conduct a terrorist act.
In fact, most terrorists had no previously known links to terrorism. Many of the 9/11 hijackers had no such links. For that matter, neither did Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 people at an Orlando nightclub in 2016, had been investigated as a potential terrorist. But he was later removed from the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Watchlist. Had he desired, with or without a “Real ID,” Mateen could have boarded an airplane up to the moment he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State just before he was killed in a shootout with Orlando police.
Then there’s the matter of whether Real IDs will actually be, well, real. Proponents say the high-tech identity documents produced under the initiative will be tamperproof and impossible to counterfeit.
But is that really true? Again, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. We need look no further than the newest generation of US passports – those equipped with a supposedly tamperproof RFID chip similar to the one mandated in all Real ID compliant driver’s license. In 2007, a computer security analyst actually cloned an RFID passport. Sixteen years later, there’s an enormous underground market for cloning RFID cards, and criminals have invented many clever ways to copy cardholders’ data.
Is it too much to imagine that clever hackers will similarly find a way to clone Real ID-compliant state driver’s licenses – or to steal the data on them?
Then, of course, there’s the not-so-small matter of the Real ID databases. Essentially, the Real ID Act mandates the creation of the equivalent of a national database to include details on nearly 230 million licensed drivers. Each state must provide electronic access to all other states to information contained in its motor vehicle database.
To work properly, the database will need to be available to any authorized user. That will include airport ticket agents, police, DMV employees, and countless other individuals.
Again, hackers are an obvious threat. If they penetrate the database, they’ll have access to identity documents, including digitized facial images, of drivers in all 50 states – not just one. But consider the threats posed by an underpaid cop or a blackmailed ticket agent. Any such insider will have instant access to sensitive information on millions of people.
Moreover, since there’s no requirement that the data on your Real ID be protected in any way, private companies can use the information in it as they please. Every business that requires identification will swipe your Real ID and can then sell the data to the highest bidder.
Then there’s the matter of “mission creep.” Once Real ID comes fully into effect (if ever), the federal or state government can legislate mandates requiring identification for whatever purpose they wish – not just the list of purposes contained in the original 2005 law.
For instance, a Real ID compliant driver’s license might be required to purchase firearms or ammunition. Or to receive food stamps or other welfare benefits.
Are we paranoid? Perhaps. But if history is any lesson, we could be right.
In 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment came into effect, authorizing the federal government to impose an income tax on wages. Supporters of the amendment swore to anyone who would listen that only the “rich” would need to pay the tax.
And sure enough, the first IRS Form 1040 imposed no income tax obligation to anyone earning less than $20,000 per year – about $600,000 today adjusted for inflation. But how rich do you feel now after paying 40% of your income (or more) in taxes?
Then there’s the matter of Social Security. My Social Security card, issued in the 1950s, says at the bottom, “for Social Security purposes – not for identification.” Yet 60 years later, our Social Security number is the key to everything about us – from our credit records to our tax returns.
To sum things up, we’re delighted that the DHS has once again delayed implementation of Real ID. But we’d be a lot happier if Congress scraps the law altogether.