Getting Real About National ID

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the REAL ID Act of 2005. Privacy advocates decry the act as a move towards a national identification card while others back it as a key national security measure. Both sides miss important points, including the fact that Americans already have a national ID card.

It’s called a driver’s license. That piece of ID is what one normally shows to get on a plane or apply for a credit card. And the validity of that information is important for both safety and commerce.

REAL ID, authored by Representative James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, would standardize state drivers licenses and tighten federal asylum laws. In order to continue receiving federal dollars, states would be required to include certain data in their drivers licenses, including full name, date of birth, gender, license number, a digital photograph, address, signature, physical security measures and machine readable technology.

Outdated Arguments

None of these requirements is a bad idea. For too long, criminals have been able to escape punishment for their crimes by hiding and creating a new identity in a different state. Privacy advocates do everyone a disservice by denying these obvious facts.

For instance, last month ACLU Legislative Counsel Marvin J. Johnson complained that Sensenbrenner “says he is opposed to a national ID card, and yet he’s laying the foundation for one.” Framing the debate in this way, whether it is coming from civil libertarians on the left or the right, is outdated and a distraction from the real issues. But that’s not to say REAL ID is without flaws.

The vote on REAL ID split largely along party lines, with almost all House Republicans voting for the bill. Supposedly the party of smaller government, one would think that GOP members would be a little more suspicious of the provision that allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to unilaterally increase the required information on driver’s licenses, including expensive technology and biometrics.

Government should collect the minimum amount of information needed to increase the security of identification, and there should be rules with teeth that assure the data will be used only for identification and driver’s license purposes. But this requirement is an arduous task.

Imposing Limitations

As Richard Clarke, former National Security Council official, recently wrote, “The government’s performance to date with anti-terrorism laws does not inspire trust; the new authorities in the Patriot Act, which we readily gave the government to fight terrorists, are now being used for a variety of other purposes.”

Clarke cites examples of reports that federal agents are obtaining personal data on individuals who are not linked to terrorism. To be more conducive to liberty, the REAL ID bill should contain language that limits arbitrary authority and creates oversight of data handling.

One way to create oversight is through the involvement of American citizens concerned about liberty. To that end, it might be possible to create some kind of committee that monitors data use. For instance, the National Intelligence Reform Act of last year stipulated the creation of a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. That is a step in the right direction.

Separation of Powers

But when the government in power is also responsible for appointing the watchdogs, such a committee might not offer the strong protection needed. There’s something to be said for the separation of powers, and perhaps what the country really needs is an independently elected board of privacy and liberty officials. It wouldn’t be that hard, after all.

With the information transfer that the Internet affords, combined with the seriousness of this issue, it seems like a no-brainer proposition, unless, of course, government officials are bent on escaping public scrutiny. The real dilemma that Americans face is that they want the government strong enough to fight terrorists but also weak enough to be forced to respect liberty, privacy and the general will of the people.

The solution to this problem lies in figuring out how to increase security while increasing the accountability of government action. The national ID card debate, meanwhile, is a distraction from the real issues — data management and transparency of authority.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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