Setting the REAL ID Record Straight in Minnesota

A few weeks ago, unsatisfied with a report on REAL ID in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I submitted an op-ed that the paper was kind enough to print. Unfortunately, they followed it up with an editorial favoring state compliance with REAL ID. And last week, the Star Tribune published an op-ed from a pro-national-ID advocacy group arguing that Minnesota should join the national ID system. The paper’s recent coverage of a meeting between state officials and the DHS reported uncritically on federal bureaucrats’ misrepresentations to Minnesota’s lawmakers. The REAL ID record in Minnesota should be set straight.

According to the Star Tribune’s report, Ted Sobel, director of DHS’s Office of State-Issued Identification Support, told Minnesota officials: “We are not asking Minnesota to turn over the keys to your information to anybody else. REAL ID does not affect one way or another how Minnesota protects the information of its residents.”

That is not accurate. REAL ID compliance would require Minnesota to make its drivers’ information available to all other States. The law is unequivocal on that (you can get it right from DHS’s web site):

To meet the requirements of this section, a State shall adopt the following practices in the issuance of drivers’ licenses and identification cards: …
(12) Provide electronic access to all other States to information contained in the motor vehicle database of the State.
(13) Maintain a State motor vehicle database that contains, at a minimum–
(A) all data fields printed on drivers’ licenses and identification cards issued by the State; and
(B) motor vehicle drivers’ histories, including motor vehicle violations, suspensions, and points on licenses.

That seems like turning over the keys to me, and it absolutely affects the security of Minnesotans’ personal information.

On compliance issues, Mr. Sobel was again inaccurate with Minnesota officials. He told Minnesota legislators: “We do not have the discretion to say ‘Well, the law has 43 things, but we can just give a waiver to 10 of them.’”

In fact, DHS has been doing exactly that since January 2008, when it created a “material compliance checklist” and began treating states as compliant if they did some of the things the law requires and showed enough obeisance. Not one of the jurisdications DHS lists on its web site as “Compliant/Extension States/Territories” is in full compliance with the law. They are all enjoying waivers issued by DHS. DHS’s hands are not tied, as Mr. Sobel claimed to Minnesota officials.

These are rather picayune details, but I think it’s important to make Minnesota officials aware, if I can, that they are not necessarily getting a straight story from the Department of Homeland Security. They are, as I wrote in the Star Tribune, being buffaloed by DHS and pro-national-ID advocates. Better informed, Minnesota’s duly elected officials should turn and face down the DHS and defend their authority over state policy while they protect Minnesotans’ privacy and data security.

The Star Tribune’s editorial board dismissed my arguments as part of an “ideologically driven crusade[] against the federal government.” I don’t think that is a fair characterization of my reason for preferring that Minnesota’s legislature set Minnesota’s policies. Minnesota’s legislature passed a budget before the beginning of the fiscal year, and Congress did not. Minnesota’s House has a Speaker, and Congress does not. Minnesota’s public servants are more accountable and almost certainly more accurate when they speak to the state’s legislators.

In the op-ed published last week, the policy director of an obscure Washington, D.C., group called “Keeping IDentities Safe” wrote that my intention in informing Minnestoans about REAL ID was “to provoke an Orwellian fear that driver’s licenses are being co-opted by the federal government to track law-abiding citizens.” I suppose they might draw such conclusions, because the likelihood of being tracked rises under a national ID system. As I noted in my book, Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood, such a system makes it much easier for governments and corporations to collect and store data that reveals our comings-and-goings, our preferences, commercial transactions, and so on. That makes it easier to influence and control us. One need not fear Orwell to prefer state policies that protect drivers’ privacy.

There is an argument that REAL ID is not a national ID system, but I think that case is closed. A national ID system is 1) national in scope; it 2) is used to identify; and it 3) is practically or legally required. State driver licensing systems unified under federal mandates meet this definition. It does not matter that the government workers administering federal identification policy were hired by the states. And it does not matter that the cards would say “Minnesota”, “New York”, or “New Hampshire” on the front. When data on our identity cards are all in the same formats, and federal information-sharing mandates are being carried out behind the scenes, that’s a national ID.