In a vote that largely divided along party lines, the U.S. House of Representativesthat would compel states to design their driver's licenses by 2008 to comply with federal antiterrorist standards. Federal employees would reject licenses or identity cards that don't comply, which could curb Americans' access to everything from airplanes to national parks and some courthouses.
The congressional maneuvering takes place as governments are growing more interested in implanting technology in ID cards to make them smarter and more secure. The U.S. State Department soon will beginwith radio frequency identification, or RFID, chips embedded in them, and Virginia the first state to glue RFID tags into all its driver's licenses.
A recent vote in Congress endorsing standardized, electronically readable driver's licenses has raised fears about whether the proposal would usher in what amounts to a national ID card.
Proponents of the Real ID Act say it's needed to frustrate both terrorists and illegal immigrants. Critics say it imposes more requirements for identity documents on states, and gives the Department of Homeland Security carte blanche to do nearly anything else "to protect the national security interests of the United States."
"Supporters claim it is not a national ID because it is voluntary," Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, one of the eight Republicans to object to the measure, said during the floor debate this week. "However, any state that opts out will automatically make nonpersons out of its citizens. They will not be able to fly or to take a train."
Paul warned that the legislation, called the Real ID Act, gives unfettered authority to the Department of Homeland Security to design state ID cards and driver's licenses. Among the possibilities: biometric information such as retinal scans, fingerprints, DNA data and RFID tracking technology.
Proponents of the Real ID Act say itand is needed to frustrate both terrorists and illegal immigrants. Only a portion of the legislation regulates ID cards; the rest deals with immigration law and asylum requests. "American citizens have the right to know who is in their country, that people are who they say they are, and that the name on the driver's license is the real holder's name, not some alias," F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., said last week.
"If these commonsense reforms had been in place in 2001, they would have hindered the efforts of the 9/11 terrorists, and they will go a long way toward helping us prevent another tragedy like 9/11," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Now the Real ID Act heads to the Senate, where its future is less certain. Senate rules make it easier for politicians to derail legislation, and an aide said Friday that Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, was concerned about portions of the bill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on a terrorism subcommittee, said "I basically support the thrust of the bill" in an e-mail to CNET News.com on Friday. "The federal government should have the ability to issue standards that all driver's licenses and identification documents should meet."
National ID cards are nothing new, of course. Many European, Asian and South American countries require their citizens to carry such documents at all times, with legal punishments in place for people caught without them. Other nations that share the English common law tradition, including Australia and New Zealand, have rejected such schemes.
A host of political, cultural and even religious concerns has prevented a national ID from being adopted in the United States, even during the tumultuous days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that ushered in the Patriot Act.
Conservatives and libertarians typically argue that a national ID card will increase the power of the government, and they fear the dehumanizing effects of laws enacted as a result. Civil liberties groups tend to worry about the administrative problems, the opportunities for criminal mischief, and the potential irreversibility of such a system.
Those long-standing concerns have become more pointed recently, thanks to the opportunity for greater tracking--as well as potentially greater security for ID documents--that technologies such as RFID provide. Though the Real ID act does not specify RFID or biometric technology, it requires that the Department of Homeland Security adopt "machine-readable technology" standards and provides broad discretion in how to do it.
An ad hoc alliance of privacy groups and technologists recently has been fighting proposals from the International Civil Aviation Organization to require that passports and other travel documents be outfitted with biometrics and remotely readable RFID-type "contact-less integrated circuits."
The ICAO, a United Nations organization, argues the measures are necessary to reduce fraud, combat terrorism and improve airline security. But its critics have raised questions about how the technology could be misused by identity thieves with RFID readers, and they say it would "promote irresponsible national behavior."
In the United States, the federal government is planning to embed RFID chips in all U.S. passports and some. The U.S. State Department is now evaluating so-called e-passport technology from eight different companies. The agency plans to select a supplier and issue the first e-passports this spring, starting in Los Angeles, and predicts that all U.S. passport agencies will be issuing them within a year.
The high-tech passports are supposed to deter theft and forgeries, as well as accelerate immigration checks at airports and borders. They'll contain within their covers a miniscule microchip that stores basic data, including the passport holder's name, date of birth and place of birth. The chip, which can transmit information through a tiny included antenna, also has enough room to store biometric data such as digitized fingerprints, photographs and iris scans.
Border officials can compare the information on the chip to that on the rest of the passport and to the person actually carrying it. Discrepancies could signal foul play.
In a separate program, the Department of Homeland Security plans to issue RFID devices to foreign visitors that enter the country at the Mexican and Canadian borders. The agency plans to start a yearlong test of the technology in July at checkpoints in Arizona, New York and Washington state.
The idea is to aid immigration officials in tracking visitors' arrivals and departures and snare those who overstay their visas. Similar to e-passports, the new system should speed up inspection procedures. It's part of the US-VISIT program, a federal initiative designed to capture and share data such as fingerprints and photographs of foreign visitors.
A "Trojan horse"
The legislation approved by the House last Thursday follows a related measure President Bush signed into law in December. That law gives the Transportation Department two years to devise standard rules for state licenses, requires information to be stored in "machine-readable" format, and says noncompliant ID cards won't be accepted by federal agencies.
But critics fret that the new bill goes even further. It shifts authority to the Department of Homeland Security, imposes more requirements for identity documents on states, and gives the department carte blanche to do nearly anything else "to protect the national security interests of the United States."
"In reality, this bill is a Trojan horse," said Paul, the Republican congressman. "It pretends to offer desperately needed border control in order to stampede Americans into sacrificing what is uniquely American: our constitutionally protected liberty."
Unlike last year's measure, the Real ID Act "doesn't even mention the word 'privacy,'" said Marv Johnson, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"What I think the House is planning on doing is attaching this bill to tsunami relief or money to the troops," Johnson says. "When they send it to the Senate, the Senate will have to either fish or cut bait. They can approve it or ask for a conference committee, at which point the House can say 'they're playing games with national security.'"
In response to a question about a national ID card, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters on Friday that "the president supports the legislation that just passed the House." McClellan pointed to a statement from the White House earlier in the week that endorsed it.
Another section of the Real ID Act that has raised alarms is the linking of state Department of Motor Vehicles databases, which was not part of last year's law. Among the information that must be shared: "All data fields printed on drivers' licenses and identification cards" and complete drivers' histories, including motor vehicle violations, suspensions and points on licenses.
Some senators have indicated they may rewrite part of the measure once they begin deliberations.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., chairman of a terrorism subcommittee, is readying his own bill that will be introduced within a few weeks, spokesman Andrew Wilder said on Friday. "He has been at work on his own version of things," Wilder said. "Senator Kyl does support biometric identifiers."
CNET News.com's Alorie Gilbert contributed to this report.