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The Real ID rebellion

Americans don't like mandatory digital ID cards, CNET's Declan McCullagh says. New Hampshire is leading the revolt.

In 1775, New Hampshire was the first colony to declare its independence from oppressive laws and taxes levied by the British crown.

Now it may become the first state to declare its independence from an oppressive digital ID law concocted in Washington, D.C.

New Hampshire's House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a remarkable bill, HB 1582, that would prohibit the state from participating in the national ID card system that will be created in 2008. A state Senate vote is expected as early as next week.

The federal law in question is the Real ID Act (here's our FAQ on the topic) that was glued on to a military spending and tsunami relief bill last year. Because few politicians are courageous enough to be seen as opposing tsunami aid, the measure sailed through the U.S. Senate by a 100-0 vote and navigated its way through the House 368 votes to 58.

Unless states issue new, electronically readable ID cards that adhere to federal standards, the law says, Americans will need a passport to do everyday things like travel on an airplane, open a bank account, sign up for Social Security or enter a federal building.

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Video: New Hampshire says no to IDs
Rep. Neal Kurk talks about the state's likely declaration of independence from Washington.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is currently devising regulations for these federalized ID cards. One possibility is that the "electronically readable" requirement will be satisfied by embedding a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip. (They'll already be appearing in U.S. passports starting in October.)

That prospect alarmed New Hampshire state Rep. Neal Kurk so much that he gave an impassioned floor speech during the March 8 debate saying the Granite State must not participate in the Real ID system.

"There are times, Mr. Speaker, when we must look beyond the mundane and the pragmatic and take a stand based on our values," Kurk said. "I believe this is one of those times...I don't believe the people of New Hampshire elected us to help the federal government create a national ID card."

Kurk invoked the memory of Patrick Henry's revolutionary speech, "Give me liberty or give me death," and New Hampshire's motto, "Live Free or Die."

"The war on our civil liberties is actually begun," Kurk said. "There's a price to be paid for independence. But I ask you, what price-- liberty?"

Kurk's impassioned plea prevailed. Even though a legislative committee had opposed the measure, the House overruled the committee's recommendations by a margin of 217 to 84.

A Real ID rebellion?
While New Hampshire may be the first, it's not alone. Other state politicians are seething over how the federales are strong-arming them on national IDs.

The National Governors Association, hardly a bunch of libertarians, has called the Real ID Act "unworkable and counterproductive." The National Conference of State Legislatures wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in October, asking him to defer to states' expertise.

No doubt much of the political outcry is over money and would evaporate if the Feds wrote checks to cover the cost of upgrading state computer systems. (The governors' press release baldly admits they're "asking Congress to fund the changes required" by the Real ID Act. One taxpayer watchdog group puts the cost at $90 per Real ID card.)

That would be a shame. Privacy and autonomy are even better reasons to be skeptical of this scheme.

While New Hampshire may be the first, it's not alone.

There are no rules governing what data that private companies (hotels, retailers, employers) will be able to extract from the Real ID when it's swiped or placed next to an RFID reader. Will information like a home address and Social Security number be disclosed? Will a federal database be alerted whenever the card is swiped or read? And can an RFID'ed license be read from 20 or 30 feet away?

Unanswered questions like those are why it's important that state legislators stand up to bullying by Washington. "If New Hampshire passes this bill, we'll be the first domino," Kurk, the state legislator, told me Friday. "We're told there will be other states that follow on."

A New Hampshire Senate committee is mulling over the bill (and being lobbied by the motor vehicle agency, because the Real ID Act included a $3 million grant) with a floor vote expected after April 23. A rally is planned for noon on April 22 at the Concord state capitol by an anti-RFID group, and a Web site has sprung up to lobby senators.

"Having a national ID would promote a surveillance society that we should all dread," Jim Harper, the director of information policy studies at the free-market Cato Institute, told the state Senate committee last week.

The sad thing is that the U.S. Constitution was written to prohibit the federal government from taking such drastic steps. The long-forgotten Tenth Amendment says that powers not explicitly delegated to the Feds "are reserved to the states" or to the people.

For now, though, the Real ID rebellion will continue. Patrick Henry's famous resolution in the Virginia legislature condemned "burdensome taxation" in the form of the hated Stamp Act. When more people learn about the Real ID Act, it might just spark a similar revolt today.