For years both conservative and liberal states resisted it. But now it’s here and the punishments for non-compliance begin.
Paulette Renault-Caragianes is disappointed that the local DMV induced her to renew her license early, only to find out it will be outdated by the Real ID in 2020. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Being a patriotic citizen and a former Boy Scout, I recently answered the summons to my local Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) office to deliver a stash of documents to comply with the federal REAL ID Act.
The state of Maryland claimed to be unsure who I was though they never hesitate to cash my property tax payments. Nor did my local government doubt my authenticity when they sent me a ticket from a red light camera from an intersection where the yellow light was quicker than a cat’s somersault.
Even though I was aware of REAL ID perils, I showed up at a local MVA. at the appointed time. The MVA clerk quickly discovered that, while my driver’s license and passport identify me as “James,” the IRS Form 1099s I provided her identified me as “Jim”—a well-known ploy by terrorist groups. Luckily, I brought a heap of documents and found a few 1099s with “James.” Otherwise, I might still be in Identity Purgatory.
Actually, I probably would have ignored the summons except that Maryland is revoking thousands—if not tens of thousands —of driver’s licenses of people who fail to obey the MVA’s latest document demands, notwithstanding the MVA employees’ crime wave.
The REAL ID Act has been intensely controversial since its 2005 enactment in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and fiercely opposed by both conservatives and liberals. Twenty-five states passed resolutions objecting to the law or signaling that they would not comply. The Electronic Frontier Foundation declared in 2007, “A federal law that aims to conscript the states into creating a national ID system… is precisely the kind of scheme that the framers expected that federalism would guard against.”
But the Department of Homeland Security has compelled submission by announcing that the Transportation Security Agency will prohibit Americans from flying unless they have either a REAL ID Act-approved driver’s license or a passport. The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that the “‘constitutional right to travel from one State to another’ is firmly embedded in our jurisprudence.” But REAL ID Act policies have routinely scorned both the Bill of Rights and Supreme Court rulings.
Most Americans do not possess passports, so federally-approved state driver’s licenses are becoming de facto internal passports. Almost a hundred million Americans do not have REAL ID-compliant identification, according to the U.S. Travel Association. In Minnesota, 11 percent of drivers still have licenses that will be rejected at TSA checkpoints starting on October 1. States and individuals are chaotically scrambling to meet the law’s shifting demands. Twitter is echoing with howls of people who spend hours at motor vehicle administration offices only to have their paperwork rejected because of picayune quibbles.
But the REAL ID law poses perils far beyond the airport entrance. Maryland began issuing REAL ID driver’s licenses in 2009. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security notified the state that its REAL ID licenses were invalid unless Maryland snared more documents for each driver. More than half a million drivers remain at risk for losing their licenses.
TheWashington Post reported in August that 8,000 Maryland licenses have been suspended. Three months earlier, MVA announced that 66,300 people were at risk of having their driver’s license or identification cards revoked for failure to comply with MVA demands. As Maryland ramps up enforcement, the number of suspended licenses is probably far higher now but MVA spokespersons failed to respond to repeated press inquiries seeking the latest number. Maryland police are seizing the license of any driver who they stop whose only offense was failure to hustle to show Maryland bureaucrats their birth certificate, passport, utility bills, Social Security card, or other proof of their identity.
Since the 2005 enactment of the REAL ID Act, the federal government has helped bankroll the license plate scanner networks that permit tracking any driver on the roads in many parts of the nation. If Maryland decides to target people who received cancellation notices, there are almost 500 license plate scanners deployed in police cars and elsewhere in the state that compile almost half a billion scans of driver’s per year. If the order is given to use the scanners, a thousand people a day could be stripped of their licenses and potentially arrested. MVA spokespersons failed to respond to inquiries about whether license plate scanners may be used for enforcing REAL ID compliance demands.
The REAL ID Act specifies a “mandatory facial image capture” for every applicant for a driver’s license which must be “retained in electronic storage in a transferable format.” As Techdirt recently reported, “Federal investigators have turned state Department of Motor Vehicles databases into the bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure.” The FBI is regularly tapping into databases with more than 600 million facial photos. But citizens have nothing to fear because, as the FBI’s Kimberly Del Greco recently testified to Congress, facial recognition technology is critical ‘‘to preserve our nation’s freedoms, ensure our liberties are protected, and preserve our security.’’ Ms. Del Greco did not invoke China’s example to appease apprehensions on potential abuses of facial recognition regimes.
National ID cards will do far more to control than to protect Americans. The REAL ID Act could enable the feds to demand far more information in the future. If Maryland or other states have the prerogative to cancel driver’s licenses because of federal demands for people to show up with their passports or birth certificates, there is nothing to prevent future cancellations of licenses for people who balk at providing DNA samples or submitting to retina scans. The Justice Department just proposed to begin collecting DNA from anyone (including U.S. citizens) detained at the U.S. border—an estimated 740,000 people a year. If another major terrorist attack occurred within the U.S., politicians would likely again stampede to grant any demands made by the FBI, DHS, and other federal agencies.
The biggest folly would be to presume that data roundups spurred by REAL ID and other federal policies will somehow keep Americans safe. Centralizing personal data in vast databases increases the profits and risks of identity theft —as plenty of MVA employees can testify. Federal prosecutors snared a guilty plea in August involving a scheme involving two MVA employees who got kickbacks to create fraudulent licenses for illegal aliens. In 2015, a former long-term MVA employee was sentenced to prison after she was caught issuing fraudulent driver’s licenses bearing the photos of her co-conspirators and “the names of real people, including victims who were citizens of Colombia and Puerto Rico,” according to the U.S. Justice Department.
In 2012, a former MVA employee pled guilty to conspiring to fraudulently produce and sell Maryland driver’s licenses for illegal aliens. In 2011, a former MVA senior document examiner was sentenced to two years in prison for conspiring to produce and transfer fraudulent driver’s licenses. Also in 2011, two former MVA employees were sentenced to prison for their role in unlawfully producing and transferring Maryland driver’s licenses, primarily to illegal aliens.
In 2009, a former MVA employee pleaded guilty to taking payments for illegally producing and transferring Maryland driver’s licenses. Also in 2009, a former MVA employee pled guilty to a scheme creating fraudulent licenses which included “inventing false driver’s license information from other states.” In 2008, a former MVA employee was sentenced to two years in prison for his “conspiracy to produce and transfer over 100 unlawfully produced [MVA] identification documents. In 2007, an MVA employee pled guilty for her role inselling over fake driver’s licenses. (To be fair, most MVA employees have never been indicted by federal grand juries.)
Massive databases of personal data will do nothing to boost the candor of the FBI or the competence of the TSA (which misses up to 80 percent of the weapons and mock bombs testers take through checkpoints). TSA agents are so lunkheaded that they routinely hassle people with driver’s licenses from the District of Columbia—as if that was a foreign country.
There is no reason to presume that the REAL ID regime will not produce the same type of identity thefts that have long afflicted over federal personal data systems. REAL ID compliance debacles later this year will be followed by security breaches that bureaucrats and politicians claim they could never have anticipated. The biggest REAL ID fraud is that Americans will be more secure after the feds again decimated their privacy.