Jul 03 2007

Real ID Starts and Stops

Release of the Real ID proposed rules does little to stem controversy and confusion.

Washington state has found itself in an awkward position. As the fifth state in the nation to pass legislation against Real ID identification cards, Washington has been a leading opponent of the controversial law calling for national standards in issuing driver’s licenses. At the same time, the state is working with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Real ID, to pilot an enhanced driver’s license that could be used instead of a passport to cross the Canadian border.

“There’s a nuance that’s been interpreted incorrectly,” says Antonio Ginatta, executive policy adviser to Gov. Christine Gregoire. “This might be a solution to Real ID. But that doesn’t mean that this is the solution. It’s way too early in the conversation to say whether it could be a full solution.”

The Real ID Act became law on May 11, 2005, to standardize the information on state driver’s licenses (see chart of “Proposed Regulations”). Real ID was attached to a large military spending bill, and according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the goal of Real ID is to prevent another 9/11-type attack by disrupting terrorist travel.

“Shame on us if we don’t heed the lessons of 9/11,” says DHS spokesman Russ Knocke. “Those IDs were more valuable to the hijackers than a weapon.”

Opponents, however, say that meeting the requirements of Real ID, which include creating a national system to share data and verify identity documents, will cost billions of dollars to implement nationwide. The idea of sharing personal information nationally and storing it on machine-readable technology has also sparked privacy concerns.

Despite the opposition, states such as Alabama, Connecticut, New Jersey, California and Michigan are beginning to move forward with plans to comply with Real ID, Knocke says. Washington’s enhanced driver’s license, he adds, might have some tie-in to Real ID.

State CIOs are looking closely at Real ID and figuring out what the technology implications and opportunities are, says Mary Gay Whitmer, senior issues coordinator for the National Association of State CIOs.

Washington’s interest in an enhanced driver’s license and identification card, however, is not about Real ID. It stems from another federal law aimed at boosting identification requirements to keep terrorists at bay.

Proposed Regulations

On March 1, proposed regulations for Real ID were released by DHS, and the comment period closed on May 7. States will be required to submit certification of compliance with Real ID each year, beginning in February 2008. If states submit a request by October 2007, they can be granted an extension to come into compliance by December 2009. Participating states will have until May 2013 to bring driver’s licenses and identification cards into compliance with Real ID. Some of the steps that states must take to comply are as follows:

  • Verify the validity of application documents to prove identity, citizenship or immigration status, birth date, Social Security number and primary residence.
  • Include on licenses and identification cards: full legal name, date of birth, gender, Real ID number, a full-face digital photograph, primary residence, dates of issuance and expiration, signature, identifying physical features and machine-readable technology.
  • Conduct background checks on employees involved in issuing driver’s licenses and identification cards.
  • Provide all other states with electronic access to specific information in department of motor vehicle databases.

Border Relations

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, requires travelers to carry passports to cross borders between the United States, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. It took effect for air travel this January, and is set to apply to land and sea travel in January 2008.

According to the State Department, approximately 70 million citizens hold U.S. passports, an estimated 25 percent of the population overall. Some officials in Washington and Canada have expressed concern about the chilling effect that WHTI could have on their economies. Gregoire and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell have appealed for their governments to come up with an alternative plan.

“We are neighbors. We are friends,” Gregoire and Campbell wrote in a joint letter to President Bush. “Not only will [WHTI] adversely impact travel, tourism and cross-border trade, but it will not make our citizens any safer. … Terrorists will continue to falsify any ID process we put into place.”

In November 2006, Washington pitched the idea of a voluntary enhanced driver’s license and identification card to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, and on March 23, Chertoff and Gregoire signed a memorandum of understanding to create a pilot enhanced driver’s license program.

DHS and the state of Washington are now ironing out the specifics. The state is developing a business plan that addresses some of DHS’s concerns: ensuring that the issuance process is secure and that employees who are involved in issuing the cards will receive DHS-approved background checks, explains Ginatta.

The licenses and identification cards will include radio frequency identification tags, but instead of storing information about the card holder, the microchip will only contain a unique number. The number will then be entered into a database of personal information. The concept, Ginatta explains, is similar to that of the Nexus card, a clearance process for low-risk frequent travelers that was developed by DHS and the Canada Border Services Agency.

The state is still trying to figure out the process for verifying identity documents required to obtain the enhanced driver’s licenses and identification cards, Ginatta says.

The big advantages of the enhanced driver’s licenses are cost and convenience. Driver’s licenses in the state of Washington cost $25, plus another $20 application fee for first-time Washington license holders, compared with $97 for U.S. passports. The enhanced driver’s license, which will be voluntary, will cost about $10 to $15 more than a standard driver’s license, Ginatta says. The higher fee is expected to offset the program’s implementation costs, he adds.

“We want to have this driver’s license available to the people in the state of Washington by January 2008,” Ginatta says.

Not Real ID

On April 18, less than four weeks after signing the agreement with DHS to develop enhanced driver’s licenses, Gregoire put her signature on a bill that struck a blow to another DHS initiative.

The law prohibits state agencies in Washington from spending funds or implementing Real ID unless it is funded by the federal government and adds privacy protections. Similar anti-Real ID legislation has been introduced in states throughout the country (see “States Speak Up”).

Despite Washington’s opposition to Real ID, many have pointed out that the state’s enhanced driver’s licenses might address some of the concerns about Real ID (see “Proposed Regulations”). Ginatta, however, says that at least at this point, there are several differences between Real ID and the enhanced driver’s license program.

Gregoire has been concerned about the privacy issues involved with Real ID, Ginatta says. The law calls for interstate cooperation, granting access to specific information contained in state department of motor vehicles databases, and it also requires a common machine-readable technology on driver’s licenses and identification cards.

Gregoire also insisted upon making the enhanced driver’s licenses voluntary, so residents can keep their regular licenses or identification cards if they choose.

“I think people made some jumps” with regard to Washington creating a Real ID-compliant license, Ginatta says.

States Speak Up

While Real ID is a voluntary program, the assumption was that states would have little choice but to comply since residents of states not in compliance with Real ID will be barred from accessing federal services, such as boarding commercial aircraft, entering courthouses or collecting Social Security benefits.

On January 25, the Maine State Legislature threw a wrench into that idea when it passed a resolution refusing to implement the law.

“The more we know about it, the more we find it appalling,” said Senate Majority Leader Libby Mitchell during the resolution debate. “Maine is not alone in standing up to this issue. Other states are joining in. We just are getting there first.”

Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Washington followed close behind in passing anti-Real ID legislation, and dozens of bills have been introduced in other states. That begs the question: Can the law work if some states opt out?

A major part of Real ID is the requirement that states share information about drivers and identification card holders. The intent is to prevent people from obtaining identification cards in more than one state. But if someone moves from a state that doesn’t comply with Real ID, there will be no way to verify if that person already holds a license.

“It’s an ill-thought-out proposal,” says Michael Johnson, spokesman for Sen. Mitchell. It would have cost Maine taxpayers $185 million to come into compliance, and with the May 2008 deadline looming, DHS, which is charged with overseeing implementation of Real ID, just released proposed regulations for the law in March. Once the regulations become final, states will have less than a year to comply or seek an extension of time (see chart of “Proposed Regulations”).

States can choose not to comply with Real ID, says DHS Spokesman Russ Knocke. But, he adds, “I don’t think the residents of those states are going to accept that decision.” To board commercial aircraft, residents of non-Real ID-compliant states will need passports. “It’s going to create another level of inconvenience for citizens,” he says.

The costs of securing the nation have never been borne by one level of government. It’s the job of local, state and federal government to work together to keep citizens safe, Knocke adds. “There’s an urgency.”