Real Bad ID

All totalitarian dystopias, in life and in art, seem to be obsessed with identifying people. The obligatory scene in which a stern, uniformed man demands “your papers, please” has evolved into the automatic scanning of various body parts, but the purpose is always the same: to abolish the right to be anonymous.

In the coming weeks, we’ll learn how much it will cost Americans in the future — in money, time, and annoyance, as well as personal and political freedom — to convince government officials that we are who we say we are.

Under the REAL ID Act, which was passed as part of a 2005 emergency Iraq war funding bill, the Department of Homeland Security will soon set national standards for state driver’s licenses, which are to include “a common machine-readable technology, with defined data elements.” The cards will not only be required for driving a car, but will have to be presented and scanned before entering any federal building or upon any contact with federal agencies, as when passing through airport security.

But a report released in September by the National Governors Association and two other state-government groups has sparked a coast-to-coast rebellion against REAL ID. Estimating the program’s cost to state governments at a shocking $11 billion over the first five years, the report concluded, “Even with full funding and aggressive state implementation plans, the difficulties of complying with yet-unpublished regulations by the statutory deadline of May 2008 are insurmountable.”

In urging Washington to “deep-six” the program, an editorial in the Sept. 27 Baltimore Sun charged that “Congress’ boneheaded plan to convert 50 state driver’s license bureaus into de facto immigration and homeland security agencies is proving every bit the disaster critics anticipated.”

Permission creep

The REAL ID Act says that agencies issuing driver’s licenses must require from applicants a photo ID, birth certificate, “proof of the person’s Social Security number”, and “evidence of lawful status”. The agencies must keep digital copies of everything and store the copies on the card’s electronic chip. State officials will be required to “verify with the issuing agency the issuance, validity, and completeness of each document”. A visit to the driver’s license office, already one of America’s least-favorite pastimes, is going to get a lot longer, and be more infuriating than ever.

And it doesn’t matter if your current license is good until 2012 or 2016 — you’ll have to get a new one in the next couple of years to comply with REAL ID, and you’ll be required make a trip to the licensing office every time you move to a new address, even within your own town or state. Licenses will undoubtedly become more expensive as well. The states’ estimate of $11 billion amounts to $55 per driver in additional costs.

Your card’s “common machine-readable technology” will have all the usual information such as name and address, as well as a “mandatory facial image capture” (that is, a digital photo). Under the Act, Homeland Security and the states will be free to require, in addition, biometric data such as fingerprints or iris scans, but they aren’t expected to do that immediately. Until the department issues the standards, no one knows how much and what kinds of data might be put into the vast storage space on those chips, what might be added in the future, or who besides government agencies will have access to it.

In America, where 39% of respondents told a July Gallup poll that Muslims should be required to carry special identification cards, it is tempting to view the REAL ID Act as poetic justice. And there’s splendid irony in the government’s use of driver’s licenses as a weapon in a so-called “war on terror” that has come about largely because of our addiction to gasoline. Nevertheless, the Act’s provisions should give citizens of all political stripes good reason to be apprehensive.

The American Civil Liberties Union and some other liberal groups have opposed REAL ID, but to date, the most vocal condemnation has come from the far right. Religious fundamentalists, in particular, claim that it portends the “mark of the Beast” described in Revelation 13:16-17: “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads. And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”

But you don’t have to be a survivalist or end-times crackpot to worry about the national driver’s license. Even if, at the beginning of the program, its digital storage contains no more information than is visible on your current license, its national unformity and mandatory compatibility with all state databases will make it enormously handy for all sorts of purposes. As a result, the card is sure to experience even more extensive “mission creep” than even the Social Security number has seen.

Keeping up with the Brits

As with video surveillance, the British are ahead of us in government-mandated plastic. The UK’s National Identity Card, which will be compulsory within the next few years, is expected to incorporate biometric data such as retinal scans and fingerprints and be linked to a “National Identity Register” that can be used by government agencies and businesses to track employees and customers. Despite substantial technical problems, allegations that it violates the European Convention on Human Rights, the need for even small businesses to pay £250 for card readers, and a recent estimate by the London School of Economics that costs will reach £170 to £230 per card, Tony Blair’s government is pressing ahead.

Bland reassurances from UK officials about the card can make one’s blood run cold. Here is the Blair government’s Chief Information Officer: “It is about basic information sharing to ensure that services to citizens are seamless.” He didn’t mention that it will be the responsibility of British citizens themselves to ensure that information on their cards and in the national database is correct. Those who fail to keep their address and other data up to date may be subject to fines of £1000 and 51 weeks in prison.

We in the US should not be comforted by the fact that our REAL ID Act does not go as far as the British identity-card law. Both cards are the product of Anglo-American panic over terrorism and immigration, and each future scare — real or imagined — can provide a pretext for broadening the scope of the either card.

Recall that a single “shoe-bomber” incident has meant that we will ever hereafter have to perform the ritual of footwear removal before boarding planes. And despite widespread expert agreement that this summer’s alleged British plot to destroy planes with liquid explosives was no more than a fantasy, liquids were banned from carry-on baggage.

And following the release of one of those “Bin Laden” audio tapes last January, my wife Priti and I were interrogated for half an hour at the Eagle Pass, Texas border crossing by Homeland Security. Priti’s hard-won permanent-resident card should have been proof enough that she’s not a security threat, but she was targeted anyway because she’s from India — a “Country of Interest”, despite the fact that India has neither threatened to attack nor seen any of its citizens threaten the United States. I was grilled as well, with questions like, “Exactly what sort of genetic research does your institute do?” Many people have been treated much worse than we were and for no better reason by the agency that’s assigned to “protect” Americans. REAL ID will inflict more such hassles, not fewer.

Your plastic, please

REAL ID mandates nine data elements that the national driver’s license must have, but puts no limit on the kinds of data that may be stored on the card’s chip or in any database that the card might link to. It says the card must be readable by all state goverments and the US government but doesn’t say that it cannot be readable by businesses or other entities. So far, those questions have been left up to Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and to the states.

Because it is likely to use so-called “contactless” technology, much of the concern over REAL ID has been focused on the possibility of unsavory types surreptitiously “skimming” personal data from cards at a distance. But it’s the card’s perfectly lawful applications that should cause the greatest alarm.

In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a Nevada man for refusing to identify himself to police “under suspicious circumstances”. When future “suspicious circumstances” like a peaceful antiwar march or trumped-up terror alert arise, the Court’s decision could provide yet another tool for stripping away civil liberties. As matters stand, only a name, not a card, may be demanded of a person who’s not driving. But a card like the REAL ID license, which will have to be used in all dealings with federal agencies and may be demanded in all sorts of other situations, comes close to being the kind of card that must be presented to any law-enforcement officer who wants to claim that “suspicious circumstances” prevail.

A bill passed in the US House last month would require a photo ID for voting by 2008 and proof of citizenship by 2010. If passed, the bill would create a new function for the REAL ID card even before the card comes into use.

The national driver’s license reveals once again the naive, almost touching faith in technology that grips both industry and government in the era of terror. Because the card will be presumed to represent unerringly a person’s “real” identity, any information that might contradict it, like, say, our own words, will be automatically suspect. Like electronic voting, it will create both an illusion of infallibility and a myriad opportunities for error, abuse, and of course, profit.

“Open for Business”

With the states spending perhaps an additional $11 billion and the federal government shelling out an unknown but no doubt colossal amount, there is no shortage of companies ready to accept the cash. Appropriately, the Department of Homeland Security’s web page for prospective contractors is entitled “Open for Business”.

So far, industry groups representing each type of technology (radio frequency identification, “smart cards”, and others) have been vying to have their product designated by Homeland Security as the national standard. Some of the largest chip and smart-card producers have formed the Secure ID Coalition, to “promote the understanding and use of smart card technology while maintaining user privacy.” The Information Technology Association of America has a REAL ID Task Group, “created to work with the Department of Homeland Security as they develop standards for secure drivers licenses.”

Once the Department has revealed the standards (according to a Colorado official quoted by the Denver Post, the current deadline is Nov. 11), individual companies — from plastic-card makers to database developers — will begin slugging it out, state by state, to get the contracts. The more intrusive the card, the more opportunities there will be for the information industry. At the request of Homeland Security and other agencies, the cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council (NTSC) has formed a biometrics subcommittee. On Sept. 20, the subcommittee published its National Biometrics Challenge, which outlines “the major challenges that must be addressed by the biometrics community.” Says NTSC, “Working together to overcome these challenges, the community will meet evolving operational requirements while being supported by a robust biometrics industry.”

The government can count on plenty of help from the “biometrics community”. The industry site lists 31 companies that deal in iris recognition, 20 in hand and finger biometrics, 52 in face recognition, 5 in “vascular pattern recognition” (the patterns of veins in the wrist, palm, and back of hand), 19 in signature and keystroke recognition, and no fewer than 161 in digital fingerprints.

The Associated Press estimated that as of last month, the US government had spent $500 million on now-defunct programs designed to thwart terrorists by collecting personal data. Taxpayers may soon be shoveling billions more out to technology companies to design what amounts to a national identification card. If we’re lucky, REAL ID will join those other failed “security” schemes in the graveyard of bad ideas. If we’re both lucky and vocal in our opposition to the card, REAL ID will be dead and buried before we’ve wasted all that money.

STAN COX is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas. He can be reached at



Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May, 2020) and one of the editors of Green Social Thought.