That deadline is May 11. By that date, each state must make a commitment to implement the Real ID Act, a law Congress passed in 2005 to create a US standard for driving licenses which in turn, it said, would help make the country a safer place.
Under Real ID, every American would be required to have a standardized ID in order to take part in basic aspects of American life – from flying on an airplane to entering a government building such as a courthouse – and everyone’s personal information would be stored in a national database available to officials in all levels of government.
When the law passed, the President and politicians envisioned that all Americans would have new licenses in quick order. But they did not fund the mandate, and because of the costs – estimated to be nationally at the time as much as $18 billion – as well as concerns over privacy, several states have balked at implementing the law.
Five states – Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and South Carolina – have passed laws firmly rejecting Real ID. A dozen or so others are in the process of passing such laws.
By May 11 no state will have issued the new driving licenses to its citizens. However, they will have needed to have applied for an extension by then. Because of the complexity and enormity of the task, the Department of Homeland Security has issued deadline extensions way off in the future for residents. Now, Americans younger than 50 will be required to have a Real ID-compliant license by December 2014. Because older folk are less likely to be terrorists, residents older than 50 have until 2017.
The cost of providing the licenses has also come down and is now estimated at under $4 billion. Earlier this month, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said cutting the costs of the program by three-quarters should allow implementation.
“This now means that the basic cost for a Real ID-compliant license is about $8 per license over the life of that license, and that is an amount of money that certainly is well within what we should be prepared to pay protect not only against the possibility of terrorism being facilitated with illegal licenses, but to make it harder for illegal immigrants to get licenses, and also to manage to reduce identity theft, which, of course, is a very real problem across the country,” he said.
Some security experts believe that the loss of privacy is worth giving up if it makes identity theft less likely. “If you want privacy move to the rain forest,” said Robert Siciliano, chief executive of IDTheftSecurity.com, who believes the Real ID Act is just the first step toward providing a secure form of identification that will authenticate American citizens.
"Right now anonymity is entirely possible through the creation of a fake ID,” he added. "The current system of identification is based on the honor system. And we all know there are plenty of dishonest people.”
Detractors of Real ID believe there is no evidence that the new licenses will help prevent identity theft and forgers will do what they have always done… forge away. The American Civil Liberties Union said both the financial costs and the privacy costs are too high for Americans.
The immediate question though is what is going to happen on May 11 to residents of the five states that have rejected Real ID and the others that don’t apply for the waiver and extension.
Will those people not be allowed to fly? Will residents no longer be allowed to enter federal buildings in their own states? Will they not be allowed to enter national laboratories or Washington DC tourist attractions that require photo ID?
No-one is sure what will happen and as reporters around the country ask questions about how their respective states will be affected, they are receiving mixed messages. For instance, it is being touted that would-be flyers from ‘non-compliant’ states would be put in a separate – in other words, slower – security line at airports. That hardly sounds like rapprochement.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that there has been a change of power in Congress since the law was passed and Democrats, while they don’t have the numbers today, are pledging that next year they will have a big enough majority to repeal it.
Interestingly back in 2005 the law passed unanimously in the Senate and all the presidential candidates on both sides – Ron Paul excepted – voted for it. Now though Democrats Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would support changes, while John McCain and Mike Huckabee would not.