Illinois Eyes More Secure Driver’s License to Avoid Flying Restrictions

Currently, Illinois licenses and identification cards do not meet minimum standards mandated by the Real ID Act, which passed in 2005.

by Lizzie Johnson, Chicago Tribune / February 27, 2015

(Tribune News Service) — Illinois is working on a plan to bring state driver’s licenses up to federal security standards before new air travel restrictions kick in next year.

Currently, Illinois licenses and identification cards do not meet minimum standards mandated by the Real ID Act, which passed in 2005 in the wake of 9/11. If the Department of Homeland Security does not grant Illinois an extension, residents would need additional identification like a passport or face additional security checks to get on planes.

The act aims to thwart efforts by terrorists, con artists and immigrants in the country illegally to obtain government-issued identification. Arguments about costs, privacy and whether the additional information would actually reduce threats have delayed implementation of the law for more than a decade.

A major feature of Real ID is the verification of birth certificates, which Illinois currently does not require. The information is electronically scanned and stored in a federal database, and data can be shared easily among states and the federal government.

“It’s a large database that allows us to verify birth certificates and death certificates, things of that nature,” said Henry Haupt, spokesman for Secretary of State Jesse White. “It’s quite costly. We estimate, in order to utilize it and have all the birth certificates verified for Illinois drivers, it would cost about $3.75 million each year.”

White’s office estimated it would cost $100 million to $150 million just for staffing, equipment and data storage. A Real ID driver’s license could cost an estimated $75 in Illinois. A license currently costs $30 for ages 21-68, according to CyberDrive Illinois.

That cost would largely be shouldered by Illinois drivers and taxpayers. The Homeland Security estimates it could cost $4 billion nationwide to implement the act.

Illinois has received two extensions to meet federal requirements, the second of which expires in October, Haupt said. If it does not implement the act or receive another extension, then residents will need a second ID, like a passport, or be subjected to a lengthy secondary screening at checkpoints to board airplanes starting in 2016.

In December, Homeland Security pushed the final deadline to adopt and implement the act to Oct. 1, 2020, for all states that have approved extensions. Residents of states that do not have extensions will have to show additional identification at airports starting in 2016.

Haupt, who is optimistic that Illinois will get another extension, said the state will begin issuing driver’s licenses with additional security measures in 2016, although these will still not be enough to meet Real ID criteria.

“Illinois has worked in good faith toward making changes,” Haupt said. “One of the things we are working on in the Illinois General Assembly is a bill implementing and funding Real ID.”

Sen. Iris Martinez, a Democrat, said Tuesday the looming deadline for Illinois’ extension has put pressure on legislators to clarify what the law means for residents.

“I do believe we are at the tipping point where Illinois lawmakers need to understand what the final stages of Real ID entail,” Martinez said, noting that she intended to sponsor a hearing on the issue.

The Illinois General Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution opposing Real ID in 2007 that Martinez sponsored in the Senate, and in 2011 blocked a bill to implement the act.

“I viewed Real ID as yet another unfunded federal mandate on state governments already facing tough budgets for important priorities,” Martinez said. “The proposition of a creation of a ‘one size fits all’ ID card necessary to travel was of great concern.”

Martinez added that she still has the same concerns as in 2007, and that she is not in favor of Real ID.

“It comes up every year, and every year we hear the voices saying the sky will fall if we don’t comply,” she said. “But the reality is people are now subjected to high scrutiny when they pass through our airports, and more than 4 million Illinoisans already have passports.”

Brian Zimmer, president of the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License who helped draft the law’s provisions on driver’s licenses as a congressional committee staffer, said Illinois would have to construct or renovate buildings that issue licenses in order to meet security criteria, which could prove challenging.

The law prompted some states, like Wisconsin and Texas, to consolidate facilities. In Tennessee, licenses are issued from a single, secure location, he said. That means applicants get their license via mail instead of in person.

“Real ID required states to move from a business model where licensing was a revenue source to a business model where money needs to be invested in it to ensure it was done more securely,” Zimmer said. “The new model is security first, and security comes with a price.”

The price tag has some lawmakers dragging their feet, and some states that have implemented the act have run into problems with initial backlogs and confusion about the requirements.

Michael Smith, director of operations for the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, said in 2014, the state’s first year, the cards were a “nightmare.”

“It was a downright disaster,” Smith said. “The message wasn’t getting out, and many people were confused about what they needed to bring in. For a Real ID, you have to re-vet all of the documentation that we had seen already. People were getting really frustrated.”

The act is geared at cutting back fraudulent cards by ensuring that an applicant can verify he is legally in the country with original documents. Real ID cards are marked with stars stamped in the upper right corner, indicating they meet federal requirements.

“Federal agencies can’t effectively ensure transportation safety until they can confirm the identities of who is entering airports,” Zimmer said. “(The state) needs to start moving in order to avoid long lines at O’Hare and other Illinois airports as soon as 2016.”

Critics of Real ID have complained that it is a blatant invasion of privacy and would make people vulnerable to identity theft.

Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said a government database of citizens and some of their personal information smacks of Big Brotherism and would be a gold mine for identity thieves.

“One of the troubling things is that the system to protect our data will no longer be dependent about what happens here in Illinois,” Yohnka said. “What happens in Mississippi or Maine or Montana will be a conduit to get to our data. If hackers can get into those systems, they can get to the national system.”

He noted that the state’s database of driver’s licenses has fought off tens of thousands of improper access attempts.

“From a pragmatic point of view, all this furor over something that doesn’t provide safety and security is ridiculous,” Yohnka said.

Martinez said that she also has privacy concerns.

“I am concerned about privacy-creep,” she said. “You have a legally-obtained license now. Why should you be required at your next renewal to bring in a certified copy of your birth certificate? What’s the point? I think that’s a concern.”

But Zimmer counters that the system helps prevent fraud as people move between states.

“Every state maintains its own data set,” he said. “In the future, this is a system by which states can query each other when someone shows up and says they just moved. They can check records with that person’s home state to confirm it is the same person.”

States and territories were initially required to implement the program by May 2008, but the federal government delayed its start four times. Twenty-one states and four territories have been granted extensions to meet the law’s standards; 22 states and Washington, D.C., have implemented the act, according to a Jan. 30 Homeland Security statement.

Seven states — Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York — have no plans to implement Real ID. Residents of five of those states will not be able to board airplanes without additional identification like a passport starting in 2016; New York and Minnesota have driver’s licenses with enhanced security measures that will allow their residents to board airplanes, according to Homeland Security.

Kristina Boardman, director of operations for the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles, said 239,620 Real ID cards were issued in 2014, the first year they were offered in the state. That accounts for about 19 percent of driver’s licenses issued.

“We offer customers a choice,” Boardman said. “It’s not a required credential. We expect more people to start choosing Real ID once they are really enforcing it at a federal level and checking it to board airplanes.”

To apply for a Real ID, a resident would have to bring in an original birth certificate or proof of citizenship, a Social Security card and proof of Wisconsin residency, and — if they have had a name change — a marriage license. Boardman said licensing time has become longer.

“The product is a process,” she said. “We have it printed to a central location and then mail it. This gives us time to do additional verifications and is another check on their address.”

Smith said there have been longer lines to get licenses in Vermont. The state issued 143,116 Real IDs in 2014, which accounted for 79 percent of licenses.

“Clearly people do get concerned when they hear they can’t get on an airplane,” Smith said. “It’s a double-edged sword. We want to make sure our residents can board airplanes, but by encouraging them to come in, we are filling up. We didn’t receive funding for any additional staff.”

Neither state increased the price of licensing for a Real ID.

“It’s a complex act, but it’s where we are headed,” Haupt said.

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