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July 28, 2007

Real ID raises big questions

Imagine a world where you carry all your personal information on one card, where your medical records are stored on a chip under your skin, and you access your home, car or work station with a fingerprint.

If this sounds like an episode of "Heroes" or "24," think again. These technologies are already in use, and soon, they may even affect your driver’s license, thanks to the Real ID Act.

Passed by Congress in May 2005 as part of an emergency appropriations bill providing funding for tsunami relief and troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Real ID Act mandates that states begin issuing machine-readable, federally approved ID cards by January 2010.

The new cards will be required to board a commercial aircraft or enter a federal facility. For most people, the card will be a driver’s license issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. It will contain your name, date of birth, sex, ID number, address, a digital photo and, possibly, a fingerprint or retinal scan. When you renew your license, you’ll have to show documents that prove who you are, your date of birth, your legal status in the U.S., your Social Security number and your address.

Touted by the Department of Homeland Security as "a nationwide effort intended to prevent terrorism, reduce fraud and improve the reliability and accuracy of identification documents," Real ID sounds like a reasonable idea on the surface. But there are a lot of troubling things about this initiative.

The Real ID Act is essentially an unfunded mandate. Limited federal grant money is available to help states implement the program, but much of the cost will likely be passed on to cardholders in the form of a higher license renewal fee. It’s ironic: Here’s a counterterrorism measure with an indisputable link to 9/11. According to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, 18 of 19 9/11 perpetrators had U.S. identification documents, including state driver’s licenses. With a small fraction of the money we’ve spent in Iraq, we could have given states money to improve their ID systems _ in addition to enhancing counterintelligence programs and improving security at our borders and airports.

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