The Real ID Act Raises Privacy issues

A controversial proposal to standardize driver's licenses — known as the Real ID Act — passed the House Thursday as part of a large spending bill. For supporters, requiring applicants to prove residency is an important step in the war on terrorism. For critics, it's an invasion of privacy. Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University and former privacy advisor to President Clinton, discusses the changes.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The House has approved a plan to set national standards for driver's licenses. It's part of a giant spending bill to be considered by the Senate next week. Supporters call the REAL ID Act an anti-terrorism measure. Among other provisions, it would require immigrants who want a license to prove that they are in the United States legally. This morning we're going to hear from a skeptic of that plan, Peter Swire. He's a law professor at Ohio State University and was an official in the Clinton administration.

Professor PETER SWIRE (Ohio State University): I think it's a national ID system. It won't be one national ID card. Americans in polls and Congress at various points have said we don't want a national ID card, but this really is a national ID system, and this is going to be your ticket into federal buildings. If you want to go visit a courthouse, if you want to visit your member of Congress, you're now going to have this nationally approved ID card just to exercise your freedom to petition.

INSKEEP: Isn't it true, though, that already, I'm using my driver's license to get into any number of different buildings, get onto airplanes and so forth, and why not have some standards?

Prof. SWIRE: Well, I think that there's this idea that ID cards are going to create security. But when you actually look at how the systems work, I don't think that's really true.

INSKEEP: Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the principal sponsors of this measure, explained what he wanted to do and why in this way earlier this week.

Representative JIM SENSENBRENNER (Republican, Wisconsin): My feeling is, is that since we all use driver's licenses as a form of ID, you know, we ought to make sure that they mean something. And what the bill does is it says that the states are perfectly free to issue driver's licenses to whomever they want to, but if those driver's licenses are to be used for federal ID purposes, then they have to meet certain standards.

INSKEEP: Peter Swire, given that the driver's license is so widely used, what is wrong with setting a federal standard for what kinds of ID you need in order to get the driver's license, for example?

Prof. SWIRE: The federal standard actually creates new risks, because now if you're in South Carolina, people in Idaho in the DMV that you don't know much about can pull it up, and when we have a national computer database of that sort, all these systems linked together, there's a lot more risk that there's going to be a breach somewhere. We've seen the big data companies, who are professionals at this, have data breaches this year. The DMVs are not going to be better than that.

INSKEEP: Congressman Sensenbrenner also described some of the proposals in this legislation this way.

Rep. SENSENBRENNER: There are now 50 state databases, but they've got to be compatible, so that if someone is suspected of applying for a driver's license in multiple states, there can be an electronic verification presumably while the applicant is still standing in the DMV office. We also have got some provisions in there that require states to keep their databases in buildings that are much more secure than in the past.

INSKEEP: Peter Swire, you were smiling just a bit as Congressman Sensenbrenner referred to buildings that are much more secure.

Prof. SWIRE: When you have a very large linked-together set of systems, you need to have audit trails in place, for instance. That's not listed here. You need to have certification that the security systems are in place. Right now, these systems go live in no more than three years. There's no provisions to see if they're even secure before they go live.

INSKEEP: Congressman Sensenbrenner has also said that this is not a national database. Is that wrong?

Prof. SWIRE: Well, there's not one database where all the things are housed in one building. Instead, it's a link between all the parts of the system, so everybody gets to pull up all the data. That's one database the way we understand it. It's just not housed in one place.

INSKEEP: Now you've issued a critique, in a sense, of this legislation here. At the same time, a number of the September 11 hijackers got on airplanes, using driver's licenses that had been falsely obtained, and even today when people get on an airplane, they're asked for a form of ID, and it's most likely going to be a driver's license. Would you agree that something needs to be done to make sure that those licenses are real?

Prof. SWIRE: Right. Gradually improving driver's licenses makes a lot of sense, but we've seen in the cat-and-mouse game of fakery that in a world of computerized printer and a world of digital photos and the rest, we're able to create fakes really quickly that meet lots and lots of the criteria. And what the problem we have here is by having one system, if you fake out the one system, you're good everywhere. We thought this was a system to try to stop terrorists. It turns out to be a system for spreading our personal information to a lot of new people.

INSKEEP: Peter Swire is a professor of law at Ohio State University, and he was the privacy adviser to President Clinton during that administration.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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