on the Real ID Act. No hearings, no debates in committees, no debates on the floor. Nothing."

Many opponents claim that the Real ID Act is, by establishing federal standards for state-issued drivers' licenses, creating a de facto national ID card, or at least a national ID system.

"The United States is getting a national ID card," said Schneier. "The Real ID Act establishes uniform standards for state drivers' licenses, effectively creating a national ID card. It's a bad idea, and is going to make us all less safe. It's also very expensive. And it's all happening without any serious debate in Congress."

Real ID Act supporters object to claims made by Schneier and others, calling the national ID card suggestion a fallacy. According to Lungren, the outrage about the Real ID Act is overblown.

"It's not a national ID card," said Lungren. "All it does is set minimum standards for the issuance of state documents if you want them to be accepted as a form of identification to a federal official."

Lungren points to some state drivers' licenses on which he says the Real ID Act provisions were based.

"California has some of the best standards in the country, along with New York, Florida and Virginia. Those states are very close to the standard. In fact, what they're doing and have been able to do is what the Real ID Act is modeled after."

It should be noted, however, that of the 9/11 terrorists, as many as seven carried Florida drivers' licenses and at least four carried Virginia drivers' licenses, which obviously calls into question the effectiveness of those states' driver's license security measures prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

Some changes to the licenses have taken place, but none that would have prevented the terrorists from obtaining licenses again. Such discussions in both state legislatures were ongoing prior to the passage of the Real ID Act.

Lungren also defended how the Real ID Act made its way through Congress.

"We didn't sneak anything," he said. "These provisions in the Real ID Act hung up the intelligence bill last year for a couple of weeks. They were very much at the forefront -- very much debated. We had a debate during the conference committee with the Senate in negotiations.

"Chairman Sensenbrenner and others talked about these issues. That was in October [2004]. We had an up or down vote on these provisions in the House in February. The Senate chose not to take it up, and it was then attached to the Iraq/Afghanistan supplemental. So there was plenty of debate on these issues. That's what you'll frequently hear. If you can't win on the substance, you complain about the process."

Those on both sides of the issue express strong opinions, and to separate fact from fiction, the legislation's actual requirements must be examined.

After May 11, 2008, federal agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration, will no longer accept state drivers' licenses unless they have the following data included or embedded: the driver's full legal name, date of birth, gender, permanent address, signature, driver's license number and digital photo of the person's face. In addition, the card must include physical security features -- not yet determined -- and be machine-readable by technology that has not yet been defined.

These undefined elements of the legislation give cause for concern, especially because in less than three years, the entire country will have new drivers' licenses.

"I think there are still a lot of questions up in the air," said Schwartz. "You can look at the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators [AAMVA] standards for some of the issues, like 'machine-readability,' and in the Real ID Act, that term is undefined. It uses the term 'digital photograph,' and that's not defined. It says that [states] need to give 'electronic access' to other states on the back end, and that's not defined. If I were a state, I would hope that would be resolved in the DHS soon."

To obtain a valid driver's license under the new federal mandates, a citizen will be required to present extensive documentation. Each state will require, and must be able to verify, a photo identity document -- or a nonphoto identity document that contains both the applicant's full legal name and date of birth. The state must also verify a person's name, primary address, date of birth and Social Security number -- or proof of Social Security ineligibility.

Unfortunately for everyone, it appears more than likely these documents will need to be presented in person, which means everyone in America will need to head to the DMV before May 11, 2008.

Citizen Impact

Despite the questions over the Real ID Act's passage through Congress, and the uncertain language used in its text, the legislation will make it much more difficult to produce and distribute fraudulent identification documents. The bill requires states to implement advanced security features, which the DHS will define in coming months.

It's unclear, however, when exactly those details will arrive.

"There are people here working on it," said DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen. "But I haven't seen any kind of official timeline for regulations or definitions just yet."

Prospective vendors of the new technology aren't waiting for DHS announcements. Companies such as Anteon and Lasercard -- based in Fairfax, Va., and Mountain View, Calif., respectively -- have developed high-tech ID cards that incorporate security features such as embedded biometrics, laser engraving and optical memory storage, which are just a few features that can address the Real ID Act's requirements.

"One of the things called for in the Real ID Act is increased security and the ability to store data and read data back, machine authentication, those kinds of things," said Steve Price-Francis, vice president of business development at Lasercard Systems Corp., the company that produces the card platform for U.S. green cards. "We have a security feature based on our optical memory technology which will provide a layered level of security and counterfeit resistance. It will provide very rapid visual recognition. We're able to permanently, irreversibly and unalterably laser-engrave a cardholder's face onto a piece of our optical memory."

Another Real ID Act requirement is that every state's DMV databases be available to all other states. The information in these databases must consist of all the information printed and embedded in each person's driver's license. In addition, paper copies of the documents required to obtain a driver's license must be held by each state for seven years, while images of such documents must be held by each state for 10 years.

Though these technologies and requirements are sure to ignite ire with privacy advocates, Jason King, public affairs director of AAMVA, says many states are already practicing most of the Real ID Act requirements.

"The thing to note, that some people tend not to report, is that state DMV administrators are ahead of the curve in building more integrity into the driver's license framework," said King. "A number of the Real ID Act provisions are already under way. For example, one of the directives in the Real ID Act says states must verify the Social Security number of applicants. Well, 42 states are already doing that today, so that's good news. Also, the Real ID Act requires four reliable forms of ID prior to licensing. Most states already require three."

A critical point of contention for states, even if they are already engaged in some Real ID Act requirements, is whether they will be forced to reissue new licenses to those who already have them.

At the National Governors Association (NGA) conference in July, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff spoke to governors about when to expect details about Real ID Act requirements.

"What's going on now, basically, is our department here is reaching out and working with some states as far as gathering information and finding out how we should move forward," Agen said.

Chertoff's visit to the NGA conference didn't appear to calm the nerves of chief executives. An NGA news release issued after the conference said governors are concerned because "it is unclear whether the 227 million drivers' licenses and ID cards already issued will need to be reissued in the next three years and what the costs associated with that would be, including higher fees for citizens."

Spokespeople for California and Virginia, two of the states allegedly ahead of the Real ID Act curve, shared a slightly more positive outlook as their states prepare to meet the Real ID Act requirements.

"The governor has said many times that it is the federal government's responsibility to protect and secure our borders, so he is certainly pleased to see the federal government taking more steps to do that," said Julie Dobie, assistant press secretary of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bill Murray, deputy director of policy for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, expressed a similar but not quite as sunny outlook.

"In terms of getting ready, it is a bit of a challenge because the DHS needs to issue certain regulations and guidelines on doing that, which they are in the process of doing," Murray said. "That's something I know all governors, Republican and Democrat, want to have -- a conversation with the federal government about how to implement this in the most commonsense way. Secretary Chertoff has indicated his willingness to talk with governors about how to do that, and dialog is ongoing."

Immigration Issues

Regardless of political opinion, most would probably agree that U.S. border security is inadequate. That situation, according to some, is an open invitation to terrorism.

The Real ID Act is designed to address these issues by making immigration standards more rigid, and restricting the issuance of drivers' licenses to those who can provide the appropriate documentation.

Immigrants' rights advocates, however, contend that the Real ID Act makes it much more difficult, if not impossible, for legal immigrants to start new lives in America.

"What our organization is most concerned about is when the Real ID Act was drafted and passed, and made its way through the House and the Senate, how it affects and impacts the ability of refugees to get asylum in the United States," said Erin Corcoran, a staff attorney for Human Rights First. "Basically a person has to show that they meet the definition of a refugee, the refugee definition under U.S. law. To be considered a refugee under international and domestic law, you have to show that you're fleeing harm that rises to the level of persecution. The Real ID Act changed the definition."

Like most changes required by the Real ID Act, however, exact details do not yet exist. Before the act, to be considered a refugee, one had to prove they were being targeted "on account of" one of five reasons: political opinion, race, religion, nationality or gender. Fleeing gender-specific crimes and ethnic cleansing were also qualifications for refugee status.

"What the Real ID Act did was it changed the wording from, 'on account of,' to, 'at least one central reason,'" said Corcoran. "So we don't know how that is going to play out. We're concerned that if you're not able to show some sort of proof of at least one of the grounds of persecution, you may not be eligible for

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.