Commentary

REAL ID Act hurts Michigan

If you think going to the Secretary of State’s office is a pain now, wait until the REAL ID Act takes effect in May of next year. If Michigan complies, it will be required to overhaul its drivers’ licenses to meet strict federal guidelines, creating a de facto national ID card.

Data on every American driver would be entered into a national database. Understandably, many people have privacy concerns about REAL ID. But this is just one reason for Michigan to join the three other states that have already refused to comply with the act.

For starters, there are significant cost concerns. Originally estimated by the National Conference of State Legislatures to cost $11 billion nationwide, the Department of Homeland Security now says implementing the law will cost $17 billion. This burden would fall disproportionately on Michigan because of its large population.

The reason the feds are imposing these costs is because they think it will increase national security.

Many people are fixated on the Sept. 11 attack, and it was a significant event, to be sure. But we must build our security systems to address future attacks coming from any number of threats. REAL ID would be, at best, a modest inconvenience to foreigners plotting an attack, and no inconvenience at all to domestic attackers — well, no more inconvenience than every American would have to suffer in line at the secretary of state’s office.

Identification is not a defense against the threats that matter most, and we should not rely on the secretary of state employees for our security.

REAL ID’s costs in privacy and civil liberties are not to be ignored. A nationally standardized card would be used by governments and corporations alike to harvest data about all of us, increasing the power of organizations over individuals.

Ironically, REAL ID may also increase identity theft. Hackers have repeatedly broken into the Department of Veterans Affairs’ veteran health care records. In 2005, Bank of America lost computer tapes containing records on 1.2 million customers. There is no reason to think that REAL ID’s nationally available databases would be any less vulnerable — and they would contain information on every American with a driver’s license.

Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land has been saying for more than two years that REAL ID is too expensive. She has been pushing a plan to let states such as Michigan use REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses as passports. It’s a nice idea — killing two birds with one stone — but the better solution is to have the federal government fix its wrongheaded border policy, too.

The federal “Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative” is responsible for the new passport requirement at the Canadian border. Under the initiative, Americans will sit in mile-after-mile of border traffic, whether or not there is a passport card. Meanwhile, anyone wanting to evade passport checks can easily do so. They can simply cross anywhere along the hundreds of uncontrolled border miles.

Along with the initiative, Michigan should reject REAL ID by refusing to comply with its requirements. Maine, Idaho and Arkansas have already spoken up, and several other states are lining up to follow their lead. This would send the issue back to Washington and force Congress to add more sensible protections to our security programs — protections that bring more benefit than cost, and that preserve our civil liberties. A free people deserve no less.

And it might help to keep our trips to the Secretary of State’s office as painless as possible.

Jim Harper is director of Information Policy Studies and the author of Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.