Civil Liberties

Hiding From REAL ID

Why honest people might run from a national ID card


When our sad pack of presidential candidates look you in the eye and tell you they can unite a divided America, believe them. The one thing each of them knows how to do—present the citizenry with unworkable, invasive, underfunded mandates—is the one sure way to bring together bizarre masses of humanity.Take the REAL ID Act, the sputtering effort to unite Americans under a common banner of department of motor vehicle regulations and porous databases. In common purpose, it has united the Amish, gun owners, and advocates for victims of domestic abuse, all of whom want to see it killed.

Though severely hobbled by a state-level revolt, REAL ID is set to enter its first phase in May, when states that have not applied for extensions will be required to comply with new requirements for issuing licenses. Amish groups and other religiously sensitive groups suggest that REAL ID portends the mark of the beast, and those who receive it will be thrown into eternal abyss. Appealing as it is to view REAL ID author Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) as an agent of Satan, it is probably the victims of domestic abuse who provide the best case study in the plan's overreach. Organizations such as the National Network to End Domestic Violence contend that stores of half-guarded data would empower stalkers, violent exes, and obsessive abusers hunting for information. Abuse survivors are living repudiations of the assumption that only criminals need seek the comforts of anonymity.

But try telling that to the Department of Homeland Security. "Any state or territory that does not comply," bellowed senior DHS official Richard C. Barth during Congressional testimony, "increases the risk of the rest of the nation." This is easy to swallow if your chief conception of danger involves foreign evildoers bent on random slaughter of unidentified victims. It's less so for women who fear actual human beings with whom they may share a history.

DMVs and local governments have always been vulnerable data dumps where a stalker with a good story could potentially score an address. But DMVs were at least limited in scope; you could move from your small town where your abuser knew a guy who knew a police officer who could demand confidential information to another state with another system. The REAL ID Act would interlink all of them, so an irresponsible or incompetent official in Arkansas could track a target in Missouri. "A data breach at one DMV will be a data breach in all of them," says Guilherme Roschke of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

DHS regulations also demand that a "residence of principal address" be printed on the cards in a machine-readable format, which presents an obvious danger to women trying to hide said residences. More recently, DHS conceded that women enrolled in state confidentiality programs can claim an exemption. According to Jill Morris of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, that's not enough. Few women are actually enrolled in these programs, which sometimes require participants to provide verification of abuse such as police reports or restraining orders. "There are millions of women who won't call the police," says Morris. "And police can be abusers too."

There are other loose ends that leave abuse victims hanging. One way women escape their histories is changing names and having the court record sealed. This will be more risky with REAL ID in that the history of the name change may be present in the various databases. The record threatens to stymie the task of starting over and erasing the past.

Proponents of REAL ID counter that we're already living in an age of free information, a nationalized ID system being just a single droplet in the waves of revealing data washing over all of us all the time. But the wave itself is blessedly easy to get lost in, which is, after all, part of what scared our solons into passing REAL ID in 2005. The same technology that brings you the exhibitionism of Twitter-addicted teens is also a powerful force for anonymity. Women trying to avoid detection have benefited from the ability to pay bills online, to contact help undetected, to engage with the world from behind a veil of pixels.

The REAL ID concept poses myriad civil liberties issues, and survivors of domestic abuse pose a small–and perhaps surmountable–problem in a much larger debate over national idenfication. But their predicament lays bare the hubris of a government that thinks itself so completely just, so perfectly coordinated, that no honest person ever needs to hide. DHS officials may claim that no one can be secure so long as anyone remains off the grid, but they risk destroying the lives of people for whom the only real security remains anonymity itself.

Kerry Howley is a senior editor of reason.

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