The Real ID

Bob Moon May 19, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: Just about a year ago, Congress passed and the President signed new federal standards for getting state-issued ID cards. Things like driver’s licenses. Those standards kick in in two years. To get your card, you’ll have to show up in person with proof of identity. And without one it’ll be tough to do almost anything: Clear airport security. Or open a bank account. But as Marketplace’s Bob Moon reports, critics worry the new system will make one thing easier: Turning your private information into somebody else’s business.

BOB MOON: The American Civil Liberties Union is one of many critics worried that the government is mandating a slapdash idea with no controls that could soon spiral out of control:

[ Phone rings. “Pizza Palace, may I take your order?” ]

The ACLU is circulating this cautionary dramatization on the Internet, suggesting in the not-too-distant future, not only government, but even the smallest of businesses, could find it simple to track your every move:

[ ORDER TAKER: “I show your national identification number as 6102049998-dash-45-dash-54610 – is that correct?”

CUSTOMER: “Uh, yes…”

ORDER TAKER: “Thank you Mr. Kelly. I see you live at 736 Montrose Court, but you’re calling from your cell phone. Are you at home?”

CUSTOMER: “Uh, I’m just leaving work, but I’m…”

ORDER TAKER: “Oh, we can deliver to Bob’s Auto Supply. That’s at 175 Lincoln Avenue, yes?”

CUSTOMER: “No! I’m on my way home! How do you know all this stuff?”

ORDER TAKER: “We just got wired into the system, sir.”


The privacy warnings are coming not just from the ACLU, but across the political spectrum. New Hampshire Republican Senator John Sununu denounces the law signed by President Bush as “bad policy” that imposes billions of dollars in new costs on states. The free-market Cato Institute warns that a national ID would “promote a surveillance society that we should all dread.”

Ohio State University professor Peter Swire says the rush to create this new system actually weakens security.

PETER SWIRE: “There’s no protections for consumers against the identity theft this will actually increase. It’s really a badly thought out bill, and they should go back to the drawing board.”

Privacy advocate Bill Scannell agrees.

BILL SCANNELL: “The lowest employee within the DMV located anywhere in this nation will be able to access not only your driver’s license information, but your birth certificate, your passport and any and all accompanying documents that you’ve shown to prove that you are who you say you are.”

Scannell is equally worried that the data businesses could collect by scanning the ID might be used to discriminate against certain people — a concern also raised in that pizza-ordering dramatization from the ACLU:

[ ORDER TAKER: “The total is $67 even.”

CUSTOMER: “Sixty-seven dollars?!”

ORDER TAKER: “Well, that includes the delivery surcharge of $15 to cover the added risk to our driver of traveling through an orange zone.”

CUSTOMER: “I live in an orange zone?”

ORDER TAKER: “Now you do. Looks like there was another robbery on Montrose yesterday.” ]

Richard Varn thinks that idea is ludicrous. He’s a senior fellow at the Center for Digital Government, a research and advisory group. Varn points out such crime data is available today, along with systems that can pinpoint callers. He says if businesses were going to digitally discriminate, they’d be doing it already.

RICHARD VARN: “They don’t do it because no one would buy their stinking pizzas if they did something so dumb in a marketplace, somebody else would pop up and say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to charge you a premium for your neighborhood. Come to, you know, Papa John’s, and we’ll deliver your pizza anywhere for the same price.’ These folks act as if the market doesn’t exist, the Constitution doesn’t exist, there’s no laws against any of this stuff, and therefore, just because you get a more secure ID, the world will go to hell. Well, that’s not true.”

Varn is a former information chief for the state of Iowa. He argues improving the reliability of ID isn’t just a matter of security, but of convenience that helps everyday business.

RICHARD VARN: “I want the day when I can just walk in with my state-of-Iowa-issued driver’s license and swipe it through the reader at the United counter and I can walk onto the plane, because they know who I am, it’s a trusted driver’s license ID. And when I’m out fishing, out in a trout stream, I want the game warden to walk up and just say, ‘Well, who are you, show me your driver’s license,’ and they’ll look up what permissions that I have to fish and hunt, and if I have them, he’ll walk on, and make my life easier.”

Opponents argue the new Real ID law will actually have the opposite effect of making life more difficult as such checks proliferate. Privacy advocate Bill Scannell argues it’s not worth the threat to civil liberties — and certainly not worth the billions it’s expected to cost.

BILL SCANNELL: “Why don’t we do less-expensive things that provide real security?”

Opponents are having some success pushing state leaders to resist implementing the new program, which is mandated by the federal government to be in place two years from now.

In New York, I’m Bob Moon for Marketplace.

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