A revision of Real ID should start with a debate on whether it’s needed

Commentary: The most important thing Congress can do in reshaping the Real ID Act is to engage in a full debate on the value of establishing a national ID.

Plans to rewrite the fatally flawed Real ID law come as good news to anyone concerned about the security and privacy of the 245 million Americans who would be forced to use this de facto national ID.

Opposition at the state and federal levels has been growing since the law’s passage in 2005. States objected to it as an unfunded mandate that would cost them billions of dollars to implement and further bog down the process of issuing licenses by requiring onerous cross-checking and verification of source documents. Privacy advocates objected to the creation of interconnected state databases that would be developed with no requirements for securing personal data.

With Janet Napolitano — who as governor of Arizona opposed the law — now installed as homeland security secretary, new legislation is expected that would reduce some of the law's worst requirements.

Real ID, which would establish national standards for state driver's licenses and ID cards, was passed in the panicky aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, when almost anything recommended by the 9/11 Commission carried a moral weight that Congress dared not ignore. But this law was so offensive and expensive that opposition began almost immediately, and deadlines for its implementation have been repeatedly extended. Some states, including Napolitano’s Arizona, flatly refused to have anything to do with it.

Under then-Secretary Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Department included some strong statements about its commitment to privacy and security in the final rules issued last year, but the statements were not backed up with any substance. Security guidelines for the vast stores of online data were to be issued at some future date, and there was no suggestion of where money for those security programs would come from when financially strapped states already are struggling with budget shortfalls.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) complained when the rules were released that “a number of the federal databases that the states must use to authenticate source documents are incomplete, unreliable and in dire need of significant enhancements.”

According to reports at the time of this writing, new legislation would strengthen privacy controls, eliminate the interconnected databases and repeal the requirement that states query other states or verify birth certificates with the originating agencies.

Those are all welcome steps, but the most important thing Congress can do in reshaping the Real ID Act is to engage in a full debate on the value of a national ID. The law was passed without that debate; it was slipped into a spending bill that provided funding for troops and tsunami relief.

If the American people and their representatives agree that creation of some form of national ID makes sense, the government can then take steps to implement it in a way that is fair, reasonable and secure. But if we decide that people should not need papers to travel freely within the borders of their own country, the issue of creating and securing state databases of personally identifiable information becomes moot.

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