In 2008, a federally approved ID card may be required to travel, open a bank account, even collect Social Security. Photos: Electronic IDs are catching on
What's all the fuss with the Real ID Act about?
President Bush is expected to sign an $82 billion military spending bill soon that will, in part, create electronically readable, federally approved ID cards for Americans. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the package--which includes the Real ID Act--on Thursday.
What does that mean for me?
Starting three years from now, if you live or work in the United States, you'll need a federally approved ID card to travel on an airplane, open a bank account, collect Social Security payments, or take advantage of nearly any government service. Practically speaking, your driver's license likely will have to be reissued to meet federal standards.
The Real ID Act would establish what amounts to a national identity card. State drivers' licenses and other such documents would have to meet federal ID standards established by the Department of Homeland Security.
The Real ID Act hands the Department of Homeland Security the power to set these standards and determine whether state drivers' licenses and other ID cards pass muster. Only ID cards approved by Homeland Security can be accepted "for any official purpose" by the feds.
How will I get one of these new ID cards?
You'll still get one through your state motor vehicle agency, and it will likely take the place of your drivers' license. But the identification process will be more rigorous.
For instance, you'll need to bring a "photo identity document," document your birth date and address, and show that your Social Security number is what you had claimed it to be. U.S. citizens will have to prove that status, and foreigners will have to show a valid visa.
State DMVs will have to verify that these identity documents are legitimate, digitize them and store them permanently. In addition, Social Security numbers must be verified with the Social Security Administration.
What's going to be stored on this ID card?
At a minimum: name, birth date, sex, ID number, a digital photograph, address, and a "common machine-readable technology"
Homeland Security is permitted to add additional requirements--such as a fingerprint or retinal scan--on top of those. We won't know for a while what these additional requirements will be.
Why did these ID requirements get attached to an "emergency" military spending bill?
Because it's difficult for politicians to vote against money that will go to the troops in Iraq and tsunami relief. The funds cover ammunition, weapons, tracked combat vehicles, aircraft, troop housing, death benefits, and so on.
The House already approved a standalone version of the Real IDAct in February, but by a relatively close margin of 261-161. It was expected to run into some trouble in the Senate. Now that it's part of an Iraq spending bill, senators won't want to vote against it.
What's the justification for this legislation anyway?
Its supporters say that the Real ID Act is necessary to hinder terrorists, and to follow the ID card recommendations that the 9/11 Commission made last year.
It will "hamper the ability of terrorist and criminal aliens to move freely throughout our society by requiring that all states require proof of lawful presence in the U.S. for their drivers' licenses to be accepted as identification for federal purposes such as boarding a commercial airplane, entering a federal building, or a nuclear power plant," Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, said during the debate Thursday.
You said the ID card will be electronically readable. What does that mean?
The Real ID Act says federally accepted ID cards must be "machine readable," and lets Homeland Security determine the details. That could end up being a magnetic strip, enhanced bar code, or radio frequency identification (RFID) chips.
In the past, Homeland Security has indicated it likes the concept of RFID chips. The State Department is already going to be embedding RFID devices in passports, and Homeland Security wants to issue RFID-outfitted IDs to foreign visitors who 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.
Will state DMVs share this information?
Yes. In exchange for federal cash, states must agree to link up their databases. Specifically, the Real ID Act says it hopes to "provide electronic access by a state to information contained in the motor vehicle databases of all other states."
Is this legislation a done deal?
Pretty much. The House of Representatives approved the package on Thursday by a vote of 368-58. Only three of the "nay" votes were Republicans; the rest were Democrats. The Senate is scheduled to vote on it next week and is expected to approve it as well.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan has told reporters "the president supports" the standalone Real ID Act, and the Bush administration has come out with an official endorsement. As far back as July 2002, the Bush administration has been talking about assisting"the states in crafting solutions to curtail the future abuse of drivers' licenses by terrorist organizations."
Who were the three Republicans who voted against it?
Reps. Howard Coble of North Carolina, John Duncan of Tennessee, and Ron Paul of Texas.
Paul has warned that the Real ID Act "establishes a national ID card" and "gives authority to the Secretary of Homeland Security to unilaterally add requirements as he sees fit."
Is this a national ID card?
It depends on whom you ask. Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program, says: "It's going to result in everyone, from the 7-Eleven store to the bank and airlines, demanding to see the ID card. They're going to scan it in. They're going to have all the data on it from the front of the card...It's going to be not just a national ID card but a national database."
At the moment, state driver's licenses aren't easy for bars, banks, airlines and so on to swipe through card readers because they're not uniform; some may have barcodes but no magnetic stripes, for instance, and some may lack both. Steinhardt predicts the federalized IDs will be a gold mine for government agencies and marketers. Also, he notes that the Supreme Court ruled last year that police can demand to see ID from law-abiding U.S. citizens.
Will it be challenged in court?
Maybe. "We're exploring whether there are any litigation possibilities here," says the ACLU's Steinhardt.
One possible legal argument would challenge any requirement for a photograph on the ID card as a violation of religious freedom. A second would argue that the legislation imposes costs on states without properly reimbursing them.
When does it take effect?
The Real ID Act takes effect "three years after the date of the enactment" of the legislation. So if the Senate and Bush give it the thumbs-up this month, its effective date would be sometime in May 2008.