Privacy

Is Real ID a Real Problem?

The Feds wimp out and New Hampshire thumbs its nose at national ID cards.

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"Here in New Hampshire, we pride ourselves on being frugal, and here in New Hampshire, we pride ourselves on respecting the privacy of our neighbors," Gov. John Lynch of New Hampshire said Wednesday, as he signed a bill rejecting the looming federal requirement to comply with a rigorous new standard for federally-acceptable identification card. In New Hampshire, they like to design their own drivers' licenses, gosh darn it.

So far, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Washington have engaged in some form of legislative pot-shot taking at the federal Real ID Act. The Act imposes a lot of rules on state DMVs, which were hardly lacking difficult to follow rules in the first place.

Two years ago, Congress was pretty fond of the Real ID, and so were a lot of Americans. But recently, things haven't been quite so rosy for the campaign to create a national ID card.

The debate sparked up again on Capitol Hill when expansions to the Real ID act were proposed as part of the controversial immigration bill that has held Washington in its thrall for the last few weeks.

As amendments slid off the ill-favored-and ill-fated, as it turns out-immigration bill on Wednesday, one provision managed to stick. Montana Democrats Max Baucus and Jon Tester were able to keep their anti-Real ID language intact, killing the requirement that employers see a federally issued ID before hiring, and prohibiting the federal government from spending any money on implementation of a national ID program. The final push to kill the amendment by tabling it was rejected, 45-52.

In the end it didn't matter, since the immigration bill was defeated. But the shift in attitudes, along with recent deadline extension for the provisions of the Act since no one could get their act together to comply with it in time, suggests the debate over Real ID may be dead for the year, but it's sure to be reincarnated.

In the meantime (and even if the Tester-Baucus fixes make it into law) the underlying push toward a national identity system will continue. As it now stands, starting on December 31, 2009, Americans will need a federally-approved ID card to fly, open a bank account, collect Social Security payments, or otherwise traffic with the federal government. States must conduct checks of their citizens' identification papers, and driver's licenses may have to be reissued for everyone. Various RFID chips, fingerprints, etc. on the cards are optional and still debatable.

The ACLU has officially freaked out, sponsoring a website called Realnightmare.org, about the hellish future that awaits us under the cruel Real ID regime. It looks like the future will contain a lot of waiting in line, so bring a magazine or your iPod. According to the ACLU, well over half of the states have taken some steps toward brushing off Real ID requirements—thus the need for billions hidden in the immigration bill for bribe/implementation money from the feds to the burdened states.

Despite the interesting federalism battle and a universally-shared antipathy to waiting in line, many Americans have had a hard time paying attention to and tracking the Real ID debate. National ID cards aren't much different than the status quo, and a streamlined system might actually have benefits. But people don't like the idea of the federal government making them carry a chip around, and there's an inherent creepiness in the "your papers, please" aspect of the whole thing. (For the definitive treatment of this debate, read Brian Doherty's "Suspected Terrorist").

Now that the current state of affairs is as muddled as always—but more or less stalled—there's time to think. And when it comes down to it, the reason it's hard to fret too much about the Real ID Act and its mandatory identity brethren is because the world is passing this debate by.

During all the hollering about the immigration bill, the whole question of how much government tracking is acceptable is becoming obsolete as identities become less secret every day. The most extreme example of this is the very interesting character, Hasan Elahi.

Wired calls him "The Visible Man." When Elahi a Bangladeshi-born American citizen found his name on an FBI watch list, he started calling the FBI every time he planned to fly, to avoid trouble. But he got paranoid (and, as they say, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you). He worried that he "might be shipped off to Gitmo before anyone realized their mistake."

So Elahi started putting his whole life online. He carries a GPS device in his pocket, which offers casual visitors to his website an image of where he is at all times. Icons lead you to snaps of food, airports, toilets (not while he's on them, thankfully), and just about everything else he encounters in his frequent work-related world travels.

Elahi is just the wildest example of what normal people do every day when they fill out customs cards, update their Facebook entries, show bouncers their drivers licenses, and allow credit checks. More cars, phones, etc. have GPS devices (plus, check out Google's new faux GPS for mobile phones, and my previous musings on the privacy implications of Google's Street View feature), so another chip in your pocket, embedded in your ID, will be superfluous.

On his site, next to a pretty high-falutin mission statement, Hasan Elahi has a featured quotation: "Wile E. Coyote did finally catch the Roadrunner, but then he held up a sign: 'What do I do now?'" Even if the admittedly blundering and cumbersome feds manage to get a national ID in our pockets, they're not in a position to do nearly as much harm as they once were.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of reason.

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