Make your own free website on

By Kim Zetter

02:00 AM May, 10, 2005

Hundreds of civil liberties groups, immigrant support groups
and government associations oppose the Real ID Act, a  piece
of  legislation  that  critics  say would produce a de facto
national ID card, cost states millions of dollars and punish
undocumented  immigrants.  Yet despite widespread opposition
to the bill, it passed through the House last  week  and  is
expected to easily pass through the Senate on Tuesday.

The  legislation is raising questions not only about privacy
and costs but about the ways in which  critical  legislation
gets  passed  in  Congress. That's because lawmakers slipped
the bill into a  larger  piece  of  legislation  --  an  $82
billion  spending bill -- that authorizes funds for the Iraq
war  and  tsunami  relief,  among  other  things,   and   is
considered a must-pass piece of legislation.

It's  not  the  first  time Congress has slipped contentious
bills into larger legislation that is almost  guaranteed  to
pass.  In  2003, Congress augmented Patriot Act surveillance
powers  with   wording   slipped   into   the   Intelligence
Authorization  Act,  a  bill  that  authorized  funding  for
intelligence agencies. Critics, such as the  American  Civil
Liberties  Union, say lawmakers slipped the Real ID Act into
the relatively uncontroversial spending  bill  in  order  to
avoid a congressional debate over the ID measure.

"The  legislation  was  created in the backrooms of Congress
without hearings  and  without  any  real  understanding  or
thought   about   what   was   being  created,"  said  Barry
Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's  technology  and  liberty
program.  The  Real  ID  Act,  sponsored  by House Judiciary
Committee  chairman   James   Sensenbrenner   (R-Wisconsin),
responds  to  recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission to
make it  more  difficult  for  terrorists  and  undocumented
immigrants to obtain legitimate identification documents and
travel freely around the country. The bill also is  designed
to  make  it  difficult  for  anyone to forge identification
documents and use them for criminal purposes.

A spokesman from Sensenbrenner's office  did  not  return  a
call  for comment in time for publication. But proponents of
the   legislation   say   they   are   simply   implementing
recommendations   that  the  9/11  Commission  wanted.  "The
federal government should set standards for the issuance  of
birth  certificates  and  sources of identification, such as
driver's licenses," wrote the commissioners in their report.
"Fraud  in  identification  documents  is  no  longer just a
problem  of  theft.  At  many  entry  points  to  vulnerable
facilities,  including  gates for boarding aircraft, sources
of identification are the last opportunity  to  ensure  that
people  are  who they say they are and to check whether they
are terrorists."

Among other things, the legislation would  force  states  to
produce  standardized,  tamper-resistant  driver's  licenses
that would include machine-readable,  encoded  data.  States
theoretically could choose not to comply with the standards,
but residents of those states would not be able to use their
license as identification to obtain federal benefits -- such
as veteran's benefits or Social Security -- or to travel  on

The legislation doesn't specify what data states must encode
in the driver's license. The secretary of transportation and
Department  of Homeland Security secretary have authority to
designate the data. The National Governors Association,  the
Council of State Governments and the American Association of
Motor Vehicle Administrators are among those who say the law
creates  unnecessary  bureaucracy  for  drivers  and imposes
hardship and undue cost on state offices.

The legislation would require all drivers, including current
license  holders,  to  provide  multiple documents to verify
their identity before they could obtain a license  or  renew
one.   Drivers   would   have   to  provide  four  types  of
documentation, such as a  photo  ID,  a  birth  certificate,
proof  that  their  Social Security number is legitimate and
something that verifies the applicant's full  home  address,
such as a utility bill. The law would then compel Department
of Motor Vehicle employees to verify the  documents  against
federal  databases  and  store  the  documents and a digital
photo of the card holder in a database. "What's the clerk in
Denver   supposed  to  do  when  someone  provides  a  birth
certificate from Angola?" asked  Marc  Rotenberg,  executive
director  of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Are
they supposed (to call Angola)  to  check  the  accuracy  of


The  Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cost for
states to train workers and  switch  to  the  new  licensing
system  would  be  $100 million over five years. But critics
like the National Council of State Legislatures say it  will
more likely cost between $500 million and $700 million. Some
critics call the legislation anti-immigration.  Among  other
things,  it  would  prohibit  undocumented  immigrants  from
obtaining  a  driver's  license.  Nearly  a   dozen   states
currently don't require proof of legal residency to obtain a
driver's license, but this would change with the new law.

Civil liberties  groups  are  concerned  about  the  privacy
implications  of  the  bill.  Although  the bill states that
licenses must be machine-readable, it  does  not  state  the
kind   of  technology  to  be  used.  Steinhardt  said  that
officials would likely require states to embed a contactless
RFID  chip  in  licenses  at some point, even if they didn't
require this in the initial rollout of licenses. RFID  chips
can  hold more data than magnetic stripes, but they can also
allow someone with an RFID  reader  to  collect  information
stored  on  a  license  from  a distance without the license
holder's knowledge.

The machine-readable part of the license will  contain  most
of  the  information printed on the license front -- such as
the  holder's  name,  birth   date,   gender   and   digital
photograph.  But  the  Department of Homeland Security could
add more data, such as digital fingerprints.  Proponents  of
the bill such as the nonprofit group NumbersUSA could not be
reached for comment. But the group's members  have  said  in
the  past  that  the bill successfully balances security and
privacy interests.

Among other things, the group argues that the bill does  not
create  a  national  ID  card  because  it allows individual
states to issue the documents and does not force  states  to
comply  unless  they  want  the  documents to be accepted by
federal agencies as proof of identity. In fact,  they  argue
that  the  Real  ID  bill  will  make it unnecessary for the
federal government to issue a national ID  card.  Steinhardt

"This  is  a  national  ID, there's no question about that,"
Steinhardt said. "It may be issued by  the  50  states,  but
it's going to be the same documents, which will be backed up
by a huge database." Steinhardt says a standardized  license
would  allow  the  government and businesses to track people
and would essentially create  a  single  national  database,
since  states  would  be  required  to  open  their driver's
license databases to other states. He expressed concern that
businesses  would  also want to read and collect the data on
driver's licenses.

"Everyone from 7-Eleven  to  the  owner  of  your  apartment
building to a retailer and a bank are going to demand to see
this document," Steinhardt said. "And they're  going  to  be
able   to   read   all  of  the  private  data  off  of  the
machine-readable strip." Currently, some  business  such  as
bars  and  restaurants  scan  the magnetic strip on driver's
licenses to collect data on patrons for marketing  purposes.
But the practice is not widespread.

Steinhardt  said  that  making the content and format of the
data uniform would encourage retailers and others to harvest
the  information  and create their own parallel database and
sell the information to data brokers like ChoicePoint.  Talk
about  a standardized driver's license arose last year after
the 9/11 Commission Report revealed the ease with which  the
World  Trade  Center terrorists obtained legitimate driver's
licenses and moved around the country unthwarted.

This year Sensenbrenner  introduced  the  legislation  as  a
stand-alone  bill, which passed in the House in February. In
March lawmakers, anticipating trouble passing it through the
Senate,  slipped the act into the larger, must-pass spending
bill. It's this bill that the Senate is expected to pass  on
Tuesday. "The deal's been cut," Steinhardt said. "I would be
stunned beyond belief if it didn't pass at this point."