April 26, 2005
Washington - The federal government is moving ahead with a blizzard of new identification card proposals affecting military personnel, government workers and even ordinary Americans renewing their driver's licenses.
Privacy advocates say the identification cards reflect Washington's embrace of fancy new "smart-card" technologies allowing pictures or fingerprints to be read by computers. But critics argue the cards give a false sense of security because they can be either forged, faked, bought - or just ignored by terrorists with a determination to kill Americans.
On Tuesday, President Bush endorsed moves in Congress to tack federal regulations for state-issued driver's licenses onto the bill authorizing $81 billion in additional spending for the war in Iraq.
In a letter to the House-Senate conference committee now considering the legislation, the administration said the so-called Real ID Act would strengthen procedures under which states issue driver's licenses.
The Real ID Act requires all new driver's licenses to include digital photographs, anti-counterfeiting features and "machine-readable" information verifying a person's identity.
The cards, which would be issued as current licenses expire, would be required for Americans using airplanes, trains, parks, federal courthouses and other places under federal control. The legislation also requires county courthouses to take new steps to safeguard birth records and other personal data used to verify identity and citizenship status, information that will be needed to get driver's licenses.
The Pentagon already has begun issuing "smart" ID cards to military personnel with a chip embedded in the card giving information on the person's security clearances and identification.
Starting in October, U.S. agencies are expected to begin issuing new counterfeit-proof identification cards to federal employees. New security cards are also required for civilian employees in airports and port facilities.
Civil liberties groups and conservative organizations are fighting to stop the Real ID Act from becoming law.
"If they want to make a federally issued ID, then take the states out of it and have the federal government issue it. This is just going to make it darn difficult to get a driver's license," said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.
He predicted citizens who lose their licenses will face formidable bureaucratic difficulties trying to prove their identity.
Leaders of the National Conference on State Legislatures say Congress doesn't realize that many county courthouses, particularly in rural America, don't have the manpower or the facilities to secure birth certificate data.
Nevertheless, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada predicted the Real ID Act will become law. "They are going to stick it on the supplemental and it will stay there," he said.
Reid said the measure's real intent is to prevent illegal aliens from getting driver's licenses, making it more difficult for undocumented workers to move around the United States "You can't do immigration piecemeal, but they're going to do it," he said.
The AFL-CIO says the legislation is being pushed through Congress without any hearings to expose its flaws.
"This is a draconian, mean-spirited law that will not benefit any worker, American or immigrant,'' said Ana Avendano, head of the AFL-CIO's immigrant worker project.
Avendano said the intention of the legislation is to crack down on illegal immigrants, even though all of the 9/11 hijackers were admitted to the United States on legal visas.
"This has not had a thorough hearing,'' she said.
Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, said the government is pushing for card identification systems without developing policies on how to use the new technologies and on what privacy protections to provide.
"There's a push to use more technology in cards without an idea of what we are using it for," he said.
He said tests have found some identification cards cannot always be read by machines.
In a recent report, the Center for Democracy and Technology found some technologies like facial recognition are expensive to run and have error rates of up to 45 percent. On the other hand, iris recognition, which uses data collected from 266 distinctive characteristics in a person's eye, has better accuracy rates.
The United Arab Emirates used iris recognition technology to store information on 355,000 people and subsequently expelled 6,220 people trying to enter the country improperly.
Federal labor unions are concerned the new identification cards to be given federal employees this year could be used as worker-control mechanisms. For instance, workers may be required to use the cards to open doors as they move through a building.
ID cards currently given federal employees can be easily forged and lack security features. Federal agencies will conduct background checks on their employees before issuing the new cards to ensure they are properly on the payroll.