As 2009 draws to a close, we're inching ever deeper into the corner that Congress painted us into by passing Real ID under the table in 2005. (Recall that Real ID is the failed, Bush-era attempt to turn state drivers licenses into national ID cards by forcing states to collect and store licensee data in databases, and refusing to accept non-compliant IDs for federal purposes, like boarding a plane or entering a federal building.)
The official deadline for states to comply with the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) final Real ID rule is December 31, 2009, and an estimated 36 states will not be in compliance by then, leading to some ambiguity for many citizens. For example, will residents of Montana be able to board planes in January 2010 with only a driver’s license (a state-supplied, technically non-compliant document) and without a passport (an identity document issued by the federal government)?
Past history strongly suggests that DHS will issue last-minute waivers to states that have not amped up their drivers licenses to adhere to Real ID. Early in 2008, states that actively opposed Real ID received waivers from DHS, nominally marking the states as "compliant" despite strongly-stated opposition to ever implementing Real ID.
But waiting in the wings is PASS ID, a bill that attempts to grease the wheels by offering money to the states to implement ID changes. Despite having the appearances of reform, PASS ID essentially echoes Real ID in threatening citizens' personal privacy without actually justifying its impact on improving security. For this reason, PASS ID is not popular -- privacy advocates refuse to support the bill because it still creates a national ID system. It still mandates the scanning and storage of applicants' critical identity documents (birth certificates, visas, etc.), which will be stored in databases that will become leaky honeypots of sensitive personal data -- prime targets for malicious identity thieves or otherwise accessible by individuals authorized to obtain documents from the database. And on the other side, short-sighted surveillance hawks are unhappy with the bill because they support the privacy violations architected into the provisions of the original Real ID Act.
As such, advocates of PASS ID are publicly wringing their hands over the deadline in order to encourage Congress to approve the PASS ID Act before the end of the year. But the fracas over health reform is suffocating any chance for meaningful debate about the merits of PASS ID before the Dec. 31st deadline.
A pragmatic analysis should show that Real ID is dead. To date, 24 states have enacted resolutions or binding legislation prohibiting participation in Real ID, and the varied, desperate efforts to reanimate it are misguided. Whether the states or the federal government signs the invoice, the cost ultimately falls to taxpayers, who should be troubled that neither Real ID nor PASS ID is likely to fulfill the stated goal of stopping terrorists from obtaining identity documents. (Just this week, noted security expert Bruce Schneier linked to a report about government investigators successfully using fake identity documents to obtain high-tech "e-passports," which were then used to buy plane tickets, and board flights -- the point being that a fancy, "secure" identity document doesn't stop individuals from exploiting a weak bureaucracy.)
On the other hand, the resulting databases filled with scanned identity documents will create tantalizing targets for identity thieves and headaches for people whose digital documents are pilfered; and a national ID system will invite mission creep from the government as well as private entities like credit reporting agencies and advertisers. It's high time for reason to replace the reflexive defense of a failed scheme. Congress should repeal Real ID for real and seek more inspired, protective solutions to identity document security.