Federal ID Card

Federal ID Card

Goodbye driver's license, hello national ID

Legislation attached to the $82 billion military spending bill known as the REAL ID Act will require all adult U.S. citizens and legal residents to trade their state driving licenses for new, national, electronically readable federal ID cards by 2008. Passed by Congress in June of this year, the legislation needs Senate and Presidential approval before becoming law. Critics of the legislation say it poses a huge boondoggle at DMV counters as well as a sharp rise in fees.


Possession of a federal ID card will be required of all citizens in order to drive cars, travel on airplanes, open bank accounts, collect Social Security benefits and take advantage of most government services. The bill, which was subject to a mere up-or-down vote, faced little debate as it also approved funding for troops in Iraq as well as Tsunami relief funding.

The REAL ID Act has caused a furor among state governors of both parties. At a national meeting of governors, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack said that the bill would send the cost of obtaining permission to drive a vehicle through the roof and predicted that such changes would drive the ordinary citizen crazy. The REAL ID Act requires states to verify that all applicants are American citizens or legal residents. Applicants for federal ID cards will have to provide photo ID (such as a passport), proof of U.S. residency (such as a utility bill), birth certificate and social security card. Each document will have to be verified by the originating agency for validity. Since DMV clerks would become document sleuths in charge of unmasking fraudulent papers, the bill will also require costly retraining.

Additionally, the federal ID program will eliminate current laws in some states that allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver licenses. Some states provide illegal immigrants with the opportunity to be tested for driving skills. Those who pass may be issued driving licenses and can purchase auto insurance.

Proponents of the bill say the REAL ID Act is a necessity for preventing the entry of suspected terrorists into the U.S. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the bill, which authorizes cost-covering grants to states, will cost about $120 million between 2006 and 2010.


State DMVs will be required to verify all identification documents by checking with the respective federal agencies for each provided document (passport, social security card, birth certificate, utility bill, etc.) and will have to upgrade their computer systems in order to keep electronic copies of all source documents. The law will also require the creation of an interstate database, which will allow REAL ID information to be shared across states. Auto safety experts have long called for shared DMV databases to keep habitual drunk drivers off the road. The CBO estimates that the DMV upgrades will cost $80 million. The National Council of State Legislatures, however, set the cost at a far greater range of $500 million to $700 million.

Critics of the legislation point to the vulnerability of DMV offices to hackers and identity-theft rings. In March, thieves rammed a car through the back wall of a DMV near Las Vegas, NV and stole computer equipment holding personal information on more than 8,900 people. The information was not encrypted and could be easily accessed from the stolen computers. Vast data bases like CheckPoint and Lexis Nexis have recently been breeched by hackers as well. DMV examiners in Florida and Maryland were arrested this summer for selling fake driver's licenses. Funds are included in the bill to perform background checks on all DMV employees.

The federal ID card could be valid for up to eight years, although the feds might reduce that time period. Currently, Arizona and Colorado issue driver's licenses valid for periods of more than eight years. Those states will have to recall issued driver's licenses and reissue new national ID cards. The CBO says there will be no cost to the private sector, but they may not be considering the costs of replacing a lost birth certificate, social security card or passport.


The Federal ID card will store the cardholder's name, date of birth, sex, ID number, a digital photograph, address, and an item currently referred to as "common machine-readable technology," which the Department of Homeland Security will designate. One form of such technology currently under consideration by the Virginia DMV for their driver's licenses is a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip, which would be embedded in the license. RFID chips can hold more data than magnetic strips; however, someone with a RFID reader can collect this data from a distance without the holder of the RFID chip ever knowing. The card must also have "physical security features designed to prevent tampering, counterfeiting, or duplication of the document for fraudulent purposes." Additional features such as retinal scans or fingerprints can be added at the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security.

The REAL ID Act is set to take effect "three years after the date of the enactment," which is three years after the President signs the bill into law. This will likely be soon, meaning that sometime in 2008 all U.S. citizens and legal residents will need to turn their old driving licenses in for new federal ID cards.

Years of work to make the trip to the DMV quicker and more convenient could go down the drain with the REAL ID Act. Requirements for ID card applicants to present four identification documents and the process of verifying those documents may return the DMV to the days of long lines and frayed tempers. States are not required to comply with the REAL ID Act, but those that don't will find that their citizens and residents can no longer board airplanes, enter courthouses or even enjoy our national parks if, in fact, the bill is signed into law.

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