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State drivers’ licenses are slowly turning into national ID cards by a little known federal law called the REAL ID Act.
The idea behind the law is to make it easier for law enforcement and security personnel to identify individuals through their driver’s licenses and state-issued identification cards, and the law has even led some states to ban smiling for license pictures, so as not to throw off computer facial recognition software.
Privacy groups, as well as those opposed to a growing federal government, have expressed significant concern.
The REAL ID Act created a set of standards for drivers’ licenses and ID cards that the states must meet by 2014, although currently only 19 states have met the criteria. The states were originally supposed to meet the criteria by 2008 but state governments successfully lobbied to get the deadline extended at least twice.
Under the original plan, drivers’ licenses were to be used as ID for a wide variety of purposes, such as being allowed onto airplanes. But many states are not going along, even though a REAL ID will be required to board an airplane in 2016 – and to enter a federal building by October 2014.
What the Real Act ID does
The practical effect of the REAL ID Act is to create a set of standards that state-issued ID cards and drivers’ licenses must meet. The standards will be enforced by the Department of Homeland Security.
Under the Act a driver’s license or ID Card will have to meet 39 standards, including:
- Contain the individual’s full legal name.
- List the individual’s residential address and not a post office box.
- List the individual’s birth date.
- List the individual’s gender.
- Contain the individual’s signature.
- Contain a photograph that can be used for biometric identification. That means photographs have to be taken with facial recognition software – and that smiling is banned in some states such as New Jersey and Illinois.
- All drivers’ licenses must contain features such as chips or magnetic stripes like those used in credit cards so they can be read by scanners and facilitate the tracking of citizens.
The law also requires individuals to present the following documents when they apply for a driver’s license:
- Proof of US citizenship or legal residence in the United States.
- A valid birth certificate.
- A Social Security Number.
- Another kind of valid identification.
States will have to verify a person’s identity and check to see if he or she does not have another driver’s license in his or her name.
Many states have objected to the IDs because of the cost. The state of Oregon would need to spend $16.3 million to comply with the REAL ID Act.
The Concerns about the REAL ID Act
A number of groups, including civil libertarians, immigrants’ rights activists and fiscal conservatives, have voiced strong objections to the REAL ID Act.
The major objections to the REAL Act include:
- The creation of a national database of driver’s license information maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.
- Make government tracking of citizens easier. “If fully implemented, the law would facilitate tracking of data on individuals and bring government into the very center of every citizen’s life,” Chris Calabrese a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote of the REAL ID Act.
- Put excessive burdens on some groups of people including rural residents who might not have “residential addresses” for their homes. Also, the requirements could burden immigrants and elderly persons who might not possess some of the required documentation.
- Create a situation in which drivers’ licenses could be used as an ID card for purposes such as buying firearms and ammunition, boarding an airplane or applying for a job.
- Make it harder and more costly for law-abiding citizens and residents to get driver’s licenses.
- Cost too much for states to implement.
The following states are in compliance with the REAL ID ACT: Hawaii, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, Vermont, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska.