SurREAL ID: New drivers’ licenses may mean loss of privacy
Vermont Guardian | May 20, 2005
By Kathryn Casa
Critics say a new federal measure to standardize the nation’s drivers’ licenses could be a precursor to a national ID system linked to a giant database of personal information. But according to one influential Republican congressman, the structure already exists and is in full use today by every state and the District of Columbia..
The May 3 conference committee report on the Real ID Act by Rep. Jerry Lewis, the California Republican chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, points to the Problem Driver Point System (PDPS), which is used to check drivers’ records before issuing a license, as the precursor to a national database.
“When the REAL ID Act becomes law, [federal law] will need to be substantially revised by [the Department of Transportation] to add details to the pertinent sections, as determined through the Department of Homeland Security established regulations implementing the act,” according to the Lewis report. “The primary process by which states will share information regarding the identities of driver’s license holders will be the PDPS, once upgraded and with complimentary [sic] system capacity upgrading by the states.”
Vermont’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) began clearing drivers through the national system in August 2002, according to Donna Earl in the DMV’s Department of Driver Safety. The agency runs the checks weekly, 90 days in advance of each driver’s license renewal deadline, resulting in approximately 100 hits each time, she said.
Halifax resident Rick Gay’s number came up in March, when he got a letter from the DMV informing him that unless he resolved a 1987 New York driving suspension by May 15, he would lose his Vermont license. Gay acknowledges that he got three speeding tickets in New York 17 years ago, all of which were paid. What he didn’t know, and what he said Albany never told him, was that a law at the time required the suspension of his driving privileges in New York because of three tickets in two months.
When Gay’s license came up for renewal this year, Vermont ran his name through the national PDPS and it came up as a hit. Only after dozens of phone calls to both Montpelier and Albany, and lengthy periods on hold, was he able to get the issue resolved.
“It was Orwellian,” said the 27-year Vermont resident. “All of a sudden, out of the blue I had a suspended license for nothing.”
George Orwell’s totalitarian “Big Brother” is exactly the image to which pundits and critics compare the Real ID Act.
Robert Dreyfuss, contributing editor to The Nation and Mother Jones, calls it “a step toward a chilling, privacy-violating national ID card system that could one day have Americans being asked, Nazi-style, to ‘show us your papers’ wherever they go.”
That’s not so far-fetched, says Jeff Weaver, chief of staff for Rep. Bernie Sanders, one of only 58 House members to turn thumbs down on the measure.
“There is a real concern on a lot of people’s part that this is the first step toward a national ID card,” said Weaver. “To the extent that you create a federally mandated standardized driver’s license process, you are certainly moving in that direction.”
Aside from the cost to states to comply with Real ID requirements — a figure the National Conference of State Legislatures puts at about $700 million — Weaver said Sanders’ concerns center on technology currently being introduced in U.S. passports, which will include a remotely readable chip that delivers information to electronic scanners anytime the bearer passes through a reader.
But unlike passports, most people carry their driver’s licenses with them daily, Weaver points out, which means that anyone with an electronic reader, whether it’s for government or commercial purposes, could track the bearers’ movements.
Virginia already is considering incorporating the remote chip technology into driver’s licenses, Weaver said. And although the Real ID Act doesn’t require the technology be included nationally, he points out that “it doesn’t preclude it, either.”
“From our standpoint, we can fight and win the war on terror without surrendering all of Americans’ hard-won constitutional rights,” Weaver concluded.
A congressional 1977 report issued as a result of the 1974 Privacy Act cautions that “Americans must … be concerned about the long-term effect record-keeping practices can have not only on relationships between individuals and organizations, but also on the balance of power between government and the rest of society.
“Accumulations of information about individuals tend to enhance authority by making it easier for authority to reach individuals directly. Thus, growth in society’s record-keeping capability poses the risk that existing power balances will be upset,” the report stated.
Even after Sept. 11 softened citizens’ historic resolve to protect their privacy, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich testified in congressional hearings that he “would not institute a national ID card because you do get into civil liberties issues.”
Almost four years after the national tragedy, Real ID finally found a champion in Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who shepherded the measure quickly through Congress as a postscript to an $82 billion military spending bill, by arguing that it would help this country combat terrorism.
But even right-wing pundits dispute that notion. “The Real ID Act is going to be a pain in your ass — not Mohammed Atta’s,” writes columnist Jonathan David Morse on the website Conservative Voice. “If a guy wants to knock down a building, which is illegal, you think a legal document’s going to stop him?”
The measure has created strange bedfellows out of more than 600 organizations lining up to oppose it, from pro-gun groups to immigrants’ rights organizations, many fearing the collection of vast amounts of personal information in one large government database.
“It could vastly accelerate the creation of one giant, government-owned database storing nearly unlimited quantities of personal, financial, medical, and other records on citizens and non-citizens alike,” cautioned Dreyfuss.
Costs to Vermont
The Real ID Act requires that within three years, driver’s licenses in all 50 states comply with federal standards. DMV officials will be required to verify that supporting documents are authentic, but it allocates no money to help them do so.
“They’re making the states responsible for navigating the 100-plus type visa system of the federal government. That puts a huge burden on the staffs of the Department of Motor Vehicles as they turn into immigration enforcement centers,” said Cheye M. Calvo of the National Conference of State Legislatures in an interview published on the Free Congress Foundation website.
The measure gives the Homeland Security secretary discretion over grants to assist the states, but requires that state databases be linked to the Problem Drivers system in order to qualify for those grants.
Early estimates indicate that Montpelier will have to scrape together at least $2 million to implement the system, according to Motor Vehicles Commissioner Bonnie Rutledge.
But the act will also cost Vermonters dearly in terms of their closely guarded privacy. It eliminates the state’s protection for victims of domestic violence, who currently are allowed to use a mail forwarding address on their licenses to thwart the ability of their attackers to find them.
According to Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, who maintains the confidential files in her office, 110 women and children have participated in the Safe at Home program since it started, including 87 current participants.
Real ID also will mean the end of licenses without photos, which about 20 percent of Vermont drivers still carry, Rutledge said.
“Vermont was one of the last states not to require a photo on a driver’s license, and I think that tells you something about how highly people value privacy in this state,” said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“One of the wonders of the American republic from the day it was formed was the fact that you could travel freely within the borders of the country,” Gilbert added. “People don’t realize that technology … works in both ways as an enabler. It can give somebody else access to vast amounts of information about individuals. If we thought theft was available before, think of the information that could be had” through the theft of high-tech driver’s licenses, he said.
“It could be a hacker’s dream come true,” opined Florida Today in a May 13 editorial. “Imagine what a clever criminal could do with a database that held the name, digital image, signature, Social Security number and address of every licensed driver in the country.”