Homeland Security chief defends Real ID plan

Dismissing privacy concerns, Michael Chertoff says electronically read IDs will make the country more secure.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
WASHINGTON--U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Thursday defended forthcoming national ID cards as vital for security and consistent with privacy rights.

Chertoff said one of his agency's top goals next year is to forge ahead with recommendations for the controversial documents established by a federal law called the Real ID Act in May 2005. By 2008, Americans may be required to present such federally approved cards--which must be electronically readable--to travel on an airplane, open a bank account or take advantage of myriad government services such as Social Security.

Michael Chertoff
Credit: DHS
Michael Chertoff

"I think this is an example (of) when security and privacy go hand in hand," the Homeland Security chief said in a half-hour speech at George Washington University here. "It is a win-win for both."

The importance of such documents was magnified by an announcement Wednesday, Chertoff said. Federal authorities reported that they had made more than 1,200 arrests related to immigration violations and unmasked criminal organizations stealing and trafficking in genuine birth certificates and Social Security cards belonging to U.S. citizens.

"Do you think your privacy is better protected if someone can walk around with phony docs with your name and your Social Security number, or is your privacy better protected if you have the confidence that the identification relied upon is in fact reliable and uniquely tied to a single individual?" Chertoff asked rhetorically.

The upcoming federally approved IDs are intended to be a secure, tamperproof means of protecting Americans' identities while keeping out terrorists and other wrongdoers, Chertoff said.

The Homeland Security chief, who is nearing his two-year mark with the agency, was likely trying to quell rampant skepticism about the IDs voiced by some privacy advocates, immigrants and other groups. Some have said they fear that the IDs are a stepping stone to a veritable police state, complete with ready surveillance of individuals.

Some have argued that the idea of creating more tamperproof IDs is only a marginally better way to screen out those intent on committing terrorist acts because ID cards don't even begin to tackle a core crime prevention challenge: determining a person's unspoken intentions.

State governments have also been critical of the 2008 deadline and what they have said amounts to an unfunded mandate to switch over their systems. A September study released by the National Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislatures and American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators estimated that the overhaul of their identification systems (PDF) would cost states more than $11 billion over five years. The New Hampshire state legislature even considered passing a law earlier this year that would prohibit the state from complying with the federal Real ID law.

Homeland Security has yet to issue congressionally mandated recommendations for the cards, so it's unclear how, exactly, they would work. The cards must contain, at a minimum, a person's name, birth date, gender, ID number, digital portrait, address, "physical security features" to prevent tampering or counterfeiting and a "common machine-readable technology" specified by Homeland Security.

A recent draft report by a DHS advisory committee(PDF) advised against using radio frequency identification technology, or RFID, in tracking humans because of privacy concerns.

The purpose of Chertoff's Thursday morning speech was to reflect on the agency's work during the past year and to outline goals for 2007. For the past year, he focused on three major areas: immigration and border security, Hurricane Katrina recovery and a foiled terrorism plot originating from London in August.

Conspicuously absent was any mention of the department's cybersecurity plans. After more than a year of delay, Chertoff hired Gregory Garcia, who had been working as a vice president at the Information Technology Association of America lobby group, as the department's first assistant secretary for cybersecurity. That step came after the department had sustained repeated bashing of its efforts in that realm from members of Congress.