What's wrong with RealID?

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Congress is poised to pass the RealID Act real soon now. Basically RealID requires the states to produce a standardized drivers license and to positively identify you (including your SSN) before they issue it to you. The driver's license will have some sort of machine readable portion though what kind is uncertain: DHS will be setting the details, so it could be magstripe, bar code, or RFID. Finally, the states will ahve to link up their databases.

Like many of my colleagues, I'm not super-excited about this. I hate having to show ID and proving my SSN doesn't sound like fun--I don't even know where my social security card is. The RFID feature could be a real mess (see previous comments about RFID passports), and I don't see how this is really going to protect us against terrorists. On the other hand, I don't really see that this is the disaster that some people claim.

For instance, here's the list of complaints from Bill Scannell's UnrealID.com site.

1. Dead Cops.

The Real ID Act requires that you give your permanent home address: no PO boxes; no exceptions. What about judges, police, and undercover cops? Oops!!! Hey Senators, let's endanger our police and judges!!!

I'm pretty skeptical of this argument. Maybe that's what the law literally requires, but laws aren't software. If the states really want to issue false IDs, there will be a way to do it. Either (1) this is actually permissible under RealID (2) they'll ignore the law or (3) the law will get fixed. There's no constituency in favor of making it difficult for undercover police to operate. That said, I'm not particularly in favor of judges or police (other than undercover police) having an easier time lying about their address than I do.

2. Stolen Identities.

Our new IDs will have to make their data available through a "common machine-readable technology". That will make it easy for anybody in private industry to snap up the data on these IDs. Bars swiping licenses to collect personal data on customers will be just the tip of the iceberg as every convenience store learns to grab that data and sell it to Big Data for a nickel. It won't matter whether the states and federal government protect the data - it will be harvested by the private sector, which will keep it in a parallel database not subject even to the limited privacy rules in effect for the government.

If business really want to swip the personal data off of your driver's license, there's nothing really stopping them from doing it now. There are only 50 states and each has a standardized license. An OCR scanner that read the data off the license would really be quite easy to construct--certainly much easier than a business card scanner. Better yet, many states already have machine readable licenses. California, for instance, has a mag stripe. Sure, having less diversity would help, but given the wide availability of mag stripe readers and bar code readers, I can't imagine that a universal scanner would cost more than about $1000--hardly enough to break the bank at most businesses. Sure, it would be easier if things were uniform, but I doubt that that would make enough of a difference to allow universal data collection. This argument would make some sense if RealID requires more information on the card than is on current drivers licenses, but as far as I can tell, that's not true.

3. Government Spying.

Real ID requires the states to link their databases together for the mutual sharing of data from these IDs. This is, in effect, a single seamless national database, available to all the states and to the federal government.

Now we're getting somewhere. I'm definitely not in favor of the states having their databases linked but I'm afraid the ship has already sailed on that one. That's something that's in the states interest anyway, whether it's nationally mandated or not. And of course the feds already have lots of national databases, such as those maintained by the IRS and the SSA.

4. Papers, Please. If Real ID passes the Senate, our nation will join the ranks of the old Soviet Union, Communist China, and Vietnam by issuing its citizens a national ID card. The Machine Readable Zone may come in the form of a 2-dimensional bar code - but the Department of Homeland Security, which will be crafting the regulations implementing Real ID, has made clear that it would prefer to see a remotely readable RFID chip. That would make private-sector access and systematic tracking even more easy and likely.

This national ID card will make observation of citizens easy but won't do much about terrorism. The fact is, identity-based security is not an effective way to stop terrorism. ID documents do not reveal anything about evil intent - and even if they did, determined terrorists will always be able to obtain fraudulent documents

This is a reasonable point. I certainly agree that this will do nothing about terrorism and that RFID licenses would be bad. Unfortunately, since that's at the discretion of DHS, I don't think that it's a very strong argument against RealID proper.

5. Unsafe Roads.

Once upon a time, a driver's license was a license to drive a motor vehicle. Turning driver's licenses into national identity cards will actually make our roads more dangerous: by barring illegal immigrants from getting a driver's license, Real ID means more illegal immigrants will now drive without any training or certification. Your insurance company is certain to be understanding.

I don't see how anyone who has ever actually taken a driver's test can make this argument with a straight face. I find it extremely unlikely that denying illegal immigrants driver's licenses will substantially reduce the quality of their driving. I've seen plenty of terrible drivers who nevertheless seem to have driver's licenses.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not particularly in favor of RealID. It seems to me like it's a waste of money with some potentially dangerous privacy consequences. However, I don't think it's a serious enough privacy threat to justify all the outrage that seems to be being heaped upon it. Sure, it's a national ID card, and sure that's kind of yucky in some abstract sense. I just don't see that it's that bad either. However, I'm open to being convinced. if someone has a strong argument about why I should be concerned, I'd love to hear it.

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7 Comments

What I dislike is that it really IS now a "domestic passport", and if it is remote RFID, you have a true disaster for privacy (and $ to doughnuts says the standard will be remote RFID).

Already you need a drivers liscence for basically ANY travel, and with all this, and the new requirements, why not just make it official: All US Citizens must get a passport, carry it with them, and display it on demand. Because that is what we are now at.

Nick:

I agree that post RealID the driver's license will be a domestic passport. I just think it was before as well. Do you disagree?

The machine readable changes are a BIG difference: especially since dollars-to-doughnuts says that it will be remote RFID, the same as the passport (so that there is "interoperability"). Mandating that every citizen carry a remote tracking device IS a big change, which would make Orwell shivver. Expect to see "ID portals" arriving shortly thereafter, including stealth portals.

Also, the ID requirements for the drivers liscences used to be not quite so bad. I fear that the new requirements are effectively going to be so that it is EASIER to get a passport than a drivers liscence.

Not only are present state-issued DLs a de facto national ID, the worse problem is that each state sets its own procedures for validating identity information. The result is that the present system is only as strong as the weakest state's policies, since each state accepts all other state IDs at face value.

Has anyone thought about the exposure of the Social Security Numbers? This is a number that when created was NEVER to be shown to anyone otherwise it could become difficult to claim your benefits. They realized the potential this number had for identity theft decades before the proliferation of the internet. Now, this wouldn't be so bad if they were using a National ID number that is not in a related database to Social Security numbers, which would keep SSN at least as secure as it is now. We could further secure what benefits we will receive (if any, but that is another debate) by giving up on current SSN (let them be used for RealID) and issuing a new number we actually do not give out to employers, banks, credit card companies, etc for SSN benefits.

Currently there are many different types of state DL's, so crafting a machine-readable version that would read them all is impossible. Some don't have mag strips, after all.

I'm more concerned with identity theft. With RealID, everything you need to steal my identity is concentrated in one place -- picture, info, fingerprint (if that's part of it). Everything. Steal my RealID card and get total access to my life.

I'm also concerned about privacy loss. We have seen a progressive loss of privacy over the last 20 years that would horrify our grandparents. If we care at all about having private lives, then this card is anathema.

And finally, the entire idea of a national identity card to combat terrorism and/or illegal immigrants is flawed. See Bruce Schneir's excellent essay on this topic for details: http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2005/05/real_id.html

So let it be RFID and remotely readable. Big deal. There will then be wallets you can buy that will have some sort of shielding to protect you from 'Driveby RFID-ing' so that you only give your info when you want to or have to. I think some people are greatly overreacting to this. If it bothers you so much, just pay cash for everything or walk or use public transportation. Everyone I know has a debit card. If you are not dealing in cash, I - as a vendor - have the right to know who I am dealing with.

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