Yes, Michael, REAL ID Is a Nationwide Data-Sharing Mandate

Baton Rouge IT consultant Michael Hale is right to be concerned about the unfunded mandates in the REAL ID Act. The U.S. national ID law requires states to issue driver’s licenses and share driver data according to federal standards. States complying with REAL ID will find that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) dictates their driver licensing policies and the expenditure of state funds in this area forevermore. But he raises that concern at the tail end of a letter to the editor of The New Orleans Advocate that broadly endorses the national ID law based on incorrect information. Here’s some information that Mr. Hale and every American concernced with our liberty and security should know.

Mr. Hale believes that state driver data “will continue to be maintained by each individual state, and each state will decide who gets access to this information.” This is not the case. The REAL ID Act requires states to share driver data across a nationwide network of databases. The DHS and other national ID advocates downplay and deny this, but they are not persuasive because the requirement is right there in the statute:

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.

Mr. Hale says, “The Real ID Act allows states to either adopt the Real ID or to come up with their own version of secure ID that Homeland Security can approve.” This is not true. The option of issuing a non-federal license or ID does not waive the obligation to share driver data nationwide.

Unlike the Department of Homeland Security and its pro-national ID allies, Mr. Hale gamely tries to argue the security merits of having a national ID. “The purpose of all this is to create a trustworthy form of ID that can be used to ensure air travel security,” he says. “The first step in securing a flight is to make sure everyone on board is who they claim to be.”

That argument is intuitive. In daily life, knowing who people are permits you to find them and punish any bad behavior. But U.S. federal public policy with national security implications and billions of taxpayer dollars at stake requires more articulate calculation.

The costs or impediments a national ID system would impose on dedicated terrorists, criminal organizations, and people lacking impulse control is minimal. For billions of dollars in taxpayer dollars expended, millions of hours standing in DMV lines, and placement of all law-abiding Americans into a national tracking system, REAL ID might mildly inconvenience the bad guys. They can, for example, bribe a DMV employee, spend a few thousand dollars to manufacture a false identity, or acquire the license of someone looking similar enough to themselves to fool lazy TSA agents. I analyzed all dimensions of identification and identity systems in my book, Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.

There are other security measures where dollars and effort deliver more benefit. Or people might be left in control of their dollars and time to live as free Americans.

The Department of Homeland Security consistently downplays and obscures the true nature of the REAL ID Act’s national ID policy, and it never even tries to defend its security merits in any serious way. In the information technology community, the security demerits of having a national ID system backed by a web of databases as required by the law seems relatively clear.  People familiar with information technology tend to be more concerned, not less, with the power and peril of a national ID system.

The quest continues to make active citizens like Mr. Hale more aware of all dimensions of this issue.