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House OKs $50 million in Real ID grants

Numerous states have rebelled against the required digital ID overhaul, citing the steep pricetag as a factor. Will the extra funds make a dent in the multibillion-dollar mandate?

More than half of the states have passed some sort of measure scorning national drivers license standards known as Real ID, but that didn't stop congressional politicians on Friday from attempting to sweeten the deal by approving an additional $50 million aimed at helping them out.

By a 268-150 vote on Friday morning, the U.S. House of Representatives approved those new grants for states as part of a Homeland Security spending bill covering the next fiscal year.

But will the extra dough appease states that have balked at the estimated $14 billion pricetag --according to the Office of Management and Budget--projected for the ten-year effort? The early indication is probably not.

David Quam, a lobbyist for the National Governors Association, told CNET on Friday that while the move is somewhat encouraging, "this has never been just about money. It's both about money and passing a law that will actually make these systems more secure. You can throw all the money you want at this, but unless you make changes to Real ID itself, it can't be done."

According to draft rules for the program, states must issue machine-readable licenses whose information could then be shared among individual state motor vehicle department databases. Homeland Security officials say that's necessary to verify that the same driver isn't licensed in more than one state. There's no formal requirement, however, that such data be encrypted, which has prompted concerns about the potential for identity theft.

Defenders of the regime, including Bush administration officials, claim the overhaul is necessary to create more reliable, tamperproof identification documents that can help to thwart terrorist attacks and to keep illegal immigrants from obtaining false licenses. But privacy and civil liberties advocates have dogged the plan, which was tacked onto an emergency Iraq war spending bill that won unanimous approval in 2005, arguing that it will create a massive burden on states and is not sufficiently privacy-protective--nor will it stop wrongdoers with legally-obtained documents from carrying out plots against the United States.

The additional funding did draw applause from the Information Technology Association of America, whose 325 members include companies that stand to benefit because they, in ITAA's words, have experience implementing "the majority of government credentialing and identity management programs at the federal, state and local level and provide similar solutions to commercial companies."

Like all spending bills, this one originated in the House, but it won't take effect unless the Senate and the president sign off, which isn't always a speedy process. Meanwhile, there is also movement afoot in the Senate to swap the original requirements with what supporters, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, say is a more secure, flexible approach.