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Calling for a Response to Digital ID

Calling for a Response to Digital ID

State barriers to information sharing do create problems for law enforcement when they can't identify crooks and terrorists past state lines. That's the problem the Real ID act is trying to address, but it remains to be seen if federal bureaucrats can devise a system that incorporates sharing with civil liberty safeguards. That's why a national discussion is in order.

By Sonia Arrison
04/21/06 5:00 AM PT

Last year, Congress passed the Real ID Act, a law that calls for standardization of drivers' licenses across the country by 2008. The current reaction from states like California and New Hampshire raises questions about how a national ID system would affect civil liberties, putting welcome pressure on the federal government.

California might have a reputation for supporting civil liberties but on the national ID debate the state is moving to comply blindly with federal mandates. Just this week, California's Senate Transportation Committee approved a measure that would bring the state into compliance with the Real ID Act.

'Mark of the Beast'

New Hampshire, on the other hand, is kicking up a storm warning of big brother and what some consider "the mark of the beast." Indeed, last month the New Hampshire House passed a bill barring the state from taking part in Real ID, rejecting it as a de facto national ID system. Testifying at a hearing on the issue, the Cato Institute's Jim Harper said:

"Americans and New Hampshirites should be free to go about their lawful business without being asked to identify themselves at government checkpoints. We are increasingly seeing this freedom restricted. New Hampshire's participation in the Real ID Act would diminish Americans' and New Hampshirites' ability to go where they want, and do what they want, free of interference by governmental authorities."

Since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is currently working on regulations for the new ID cards, it remains unclear what kind of restrictions citizens would face in their daily lives. Of course, that means this is exactly the time to discuss how government should collect and use information. And with an issue as important as a standardized national ID card, the debate should be loud and public, not behind the closed doors of a DHS office.

That makes comments like those of New Hampshire's Pastor Ervin "Butch" Paugh a welcome development, even for those Americans who don't subscribe to the Christian faith. Of the Real ID act, Paugh said, "This is a total takeover by the beast system and a plan to ID everyone on the planet."

Coming to Compromise

Of course, completely nixing the idea of a national ID card, as Paugh would like, is a naive and risky proposition. America already has a national ID system -- it's called the driver's license and is administered by each state. Most people don't mind this kind of ID system because the information collected by the states isn't easily sharable and thus far hasn't led to any civil liberties problems.

On the other hand, state barriers to information sharing do create problems for law enforcement when they can't identify crooks and terrorists past state lines. That's the problem the Real ID act is trying to address, but it remains to be seen if federal bureaucrats can devise a system that incorporates sharing with civil liberty safeguards. That's why a national discussion, including our most brilliant technologists in Silicon Valley, is in order. That brings us back to the enigma of California simply giving in to federal demands on an issue so vital to its population.

Second Look

California Senator Gil Cedillo who sponsored California's recent legislation on this issue defends California's complacency by arguing that it "is the national consensus." The uproar in New Hampshire shows that to be untrue. Californians should take a second look at a law that will affect them and their children for years to come.

If the proper safeguards are not put in place for America's new national ID system, it could spell disaster. But the right systems, with built-in transparency and accountability, could go a long way towards making the country a safer place. The time has come for other states to follow New Hampshire's lead and participate in the discussion.


Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute and author of "Canning Spam: An Economic Solution to Unwanted E-mail."


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