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Real ID will 'strengthen' Americans' privacy, Chertoff says

In another defense of the oft-maligned national-ID requirements, Homeland Security chief claims plan will help combat identity theft.

WASHINGTON--In another attempt to head off privacy advocates' attacks on the Bush administration's Real ID plans, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the national-identification scheme will actually "strengthen" personal privacy by providing added protection against identity theft.

In written testimony Chertoff submitted (PDF) on Wednesday to the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, he made another pitch for his department's requirements, which generally say that starting on May 11, 2008, Americans will need a federally approved, "machine readable" ID card to travel on an airplane, open a bank account, collect Social Security payments or take advantage of nearly any government service.

A Real ID-compliant document will be of higher "quality" than existing driver's licenses and other state-issued identification cards, thus helping prevent terrorists and identity thieves alike from committing forgery, Chertoff said in his testimony.

That improved quality will come about, in part, because motor vehicle administrators will be required to link into databases to verify the legitimacy of the underlying identification documents, such as birth certificates, that Americans submit when they apply for Real ID-compliant cards, the Homeland Security chief suggested. Another senior Homeland Security official, Stewart Baker, made similar claims earlier this year.

Opponents of the Real ID plan, meanwhile, have cited numerous privacy and security flaws in the plan. One of their concerns is that the government's failure to require encryption on the cards' two-dimensional bar code could lead to information being swiped and harvested by outsiders for potentially invasive purposes.

Interestingly, not one member of the House committee asked Chertoff about the issue during Wednesday's wide-ranging hearing, which lasted about three hours and covered everything from hurricane preparedness to one Republican's call for more domestically bred bomb- and cadaver-sniffing dogs. (It also touched, albeit briefly, on cybersecurity.)

Perhaps the silence is emblematic of the increasing controversy the plan has generated over the past year, with numerous states endorsing legal measures attacking or rejecting Real ID and Congress, just before breaking for its August recess, rejecting an extra $300 million in grants for states to implement the mandate.