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Real ID: Privacy Nightmares

Barry Steinhardt,
Technology & Liberty Program
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January 17, 2006

“Can we all just go home now??” — that was the reaction of an exasperated Illinois DMV official contemplating the real details, difficulties and costs of implementing the Federal “Real ID” law. The law requires the states to issue a uniform national drivers license and join a unified national database containing the personal details of 200 million Americans by 2008.

His frustration was hardly unique. Last week an exclusive story from the Associated Press reported on the details of a remarkable survey of the 50 states by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

Cost and complexity may turn out to be the Achilles heel that ultimately dooms the Real ID, but it would be a real nightmare for Americans in much broader ways. The ACLU has created a new web site,, which has the complete state by state survey results, so you can easily check out what’s happening in your state — but also covers the profound effects that Real ID will have on the rights
of all Americans.

Real ID will be a privacy nightmare creating a de facto National ID card and computer database. Among the most disturbing mandates will be the card’s standard “machine readable component” like an RFID chip that it will make
its data instantly available to not only every convenience store clerk, but to omnivorous data brokers like Choice Point.

It will be fundamentally unfair to both immigrants and native born Americans who will find themselves unable to jump through all the bureaucratic hurdles and overcome all the mistaken or lost records that will be required to get a driver’s license.

Imagine being a former resident of New Orleans or an asylee from Iran being asked to present one of the few official government documents recognized by Real ID ­ only to learn that have been lost to a hurricane or held by the government that persecuted you.

Real ID is not a done deal. The states are in near rebellion and millions of Americans oppose it. It’s too big and ungainly to mend it. Let’s tell Congress to end it.

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