Commentary

REAL ID Rebellion Comes to Illinois

This article appeared in the Springfield Journal-Register on May 16, 2007.

In 2005, Congress passed the REAL ID Act in the name of national security. By next May, states will have to force their citizens to comply with strict federal standards for driver’s licenses and other forms of identification or their driver’s licenses and IDs won’t be usable for “federal purposes” like passing through airport checkpoints. Civil liberties advocates believe REAL ID reduces Americans’ freedom and privacy, but what’s most important is that it doesn’t appreciably increase security. In fact, the law is likely to reduce Americans’ security in important respects.

Add to this that the Department of Homeland Security estimates that the bill cost states and individuals $17 billion — over $50 for every person in the country — and the recipe for state rebellion is complete. Arkansas, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Washington, North Dakota, Colorado, and Hawaii have already passed bills to protest or refuse the REAL ID Act, and there is unrest in other states.

Now Illinois is joining the fray. Without opposition, the Illinois House passed a joint resolution on April 19 urging the state Congressional delegation to repeal REAL ID. The state legislature and Governor Blagojevich should now take the next step and simply refuse to implement the law. The resolution provides ample reasons.

For one, it points out that the law would “leave identification systems open to insider fraud, counterfeit documentation, and database failures.” We hear again and again about government and corporate data breaches, which are a fundamental risk of compiling valuable information in one place. REAL ID would not make IDs much more secure, but it would make databases of sensitive information about law-abiding citizens available to wily hackers and corruptible DMV employees. If you think identity theft is bad now, wait until scanned copies of our birth certificates are available to the crooks along with our Social Security numbers.

REAL ID-compliant licenses will have a nationally uniform machine-readable technology, most likely a 2D bar code. Government officials would be able to scan us like cans of peaches at the grocery store. We do not want to follow the lead of places like the Soviet Union, apartheid South Africa, and more recently genocide-scarred Rwanda, where national IDs were put to very harmful uses.

In addition to the $17 billion implementation cost, REAL ID will overwhelm already strained DMVs across the country, especially in Illinois with its nearly 13 million people. That is a lot of paperwork. Lines and waiting times are long enough as it is.

REAL ID proponents are incorrect in stating that a national ID would reduce terrorism; most terror attacks occur in countries that have national ID cards. REAL ID would not add to our country’s protections. All that will change is that the terrorists would have to wait in long lines and fill out more paperwork — along with every law-abiding, native-born citizen.

With little security benefit, a high financial cost, and a disregard for civil liberties, the REAL ID law should be scrapped. Congress has just begun to show interest in repeal, so the time is right to refuse enforcement. The momentum is favorable, and Illinois is well positioned to be a leader. Joint Resolution 27 is an excellent start.

Jim Harper is Director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.