With the Real ID Act's May 2008 implementation date only a year away, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) held a Town Hall meeting Tuesday in Davis, Calif. Hosted by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the meeting was the only one in the nation open for public comment, although comments can still be made online until May 8th.

Dr. Richard Barth, assistant secretary of DHS's Office of Policy Development, explained that the purpose of Real ID is to create minimum standards for state drivers and identification cards. These standards, or "floors" as Barth called them, would be mandated for all identifications used to enter federally controlled areas such as airplanes and courthouses. Other forms of identification could be used instead, such as a passport, if a Real ID approved card is not available.

The Real ID Act has been controversial since its inclusion in a military spending bill which passed through Congress in 2005. Many feel these federal standards are creating a de facto national ID card, saying that it violates personal rights and also violating states' rights. The DHS denies any such sentiment. "This is not a national ID card," Barth said at the meeting.

Many issues were raised by the participants. One was the high costs of Real ID. According to George Valverde, director of California DMV, Real ID will cost $500- 700 million in California alone. The DHS has said that on average it will cost approximately $20 per card across the U.S. Jonathan Franco of the DHS said the cost "is not a DHS issue, per se," but will need to be worked out by the states and members of Congress.

In addition to the staggeringly high costs of implementation, the issue of privacy has added to the controversy. With Real ID, there will be the creation of an inter-linked, interstate database of personal information collected by the DMVs. Speakers brought up the recent rash of laptop misplacements and thefts from various government agencies. A Ph.D. candidate in information technology questioned the safety of having all personal information aggregated into one place. These comments were added to the public record, but were not directly addressed during the meeting.

Ginny Lewis, director of the Nevada DMV, pointed out that the public has no idea what is going on in regards to the Real ID -- "It's not on their radar yet," she said. But with a year left until the implementation, having only one town hall meeting in the nation -- with only eight day's notice -- angered many of those attending.

Unfortunately, many people were put on the defensive at the meeting when, in the opening remarks, a picture of the Florida driver's license of one of the 9-11 highjackers was put on the overhead screen. The apparent attempt to show the ease in which such terrorists were able to attain state-issued identification drew the proverbial line in the sand for the state DMVs. For the regular citizens, many saw the use of the highjacker's card as a threat. One citizen commented that the use of the photo was offensive, especially "in a time when we are going through a period of distrust in this country." 

Other issues raised in the meeting:

  • Lack of inclusion of states in decision making process
  • Privacy and security of records
  • Types of information stored in databases
  • Identity theft and inside jobs
  • Use, and types of biometrics included
  • Ease in which people with disabilities, and the elderly will be able to get cards
  • Putting addresses on cards and the danger to people escaping violent environments
  • Religious discrimination 
  • Gender options on cards
  • Costs to states and individuals

The Real ID Act is a very large, controversial issue, with people falling to either side. The National Town Hall meeting allowed some people to voice concerns and have their comments placed into the public record, which will hopefully be the beginning of a large dialogue.

Gina M. Scott  |  Writer