Government's really bad IDea

Washington joins the rebellion against turning your driver's license into a national ID card, but there's plenty more to worry about with a new state pilot project that could allow thieves, private companies, the government – even terrorists – to track your every move.
Washington joins the rebellion against turning your driver's license into a national ID card, but there's plenty more to worry about with a new state pilot project that could allow thieves, private companies, the government – even terrorists – to track your every move.

Washington has become the fourth state in the nation, and the second in the Northwest, behind Idaho, to pass legislation blocking the implementation of Real ID, the federal Big Brother boondoggle that would turn your driver's license into a national identity card. The state House passed the measure, already approved by the Senate, with a 95-2 vote. The Real ID Act is a disaster in terms of civil liberties, but it is also a nightmare for states to put into practice, which is why there is broad bipartisan opposition to the plan. "The overwhelming margin of today's vote shows how truly bipartisan is the opposition to Real ID. It would threaten personal privacy, as well as create a bureaucratic nightmare to implement," said American Civil Liberties Union of Washington Legislative Director Jennifer Shaw in an ACLU press release. The effect of the Real ID law, passed in 2005, would vastly expand motor vehicle licensing departments, creating a whole new bureaucracy to deal with compiling, verifying, and keeping identity records. In other words, the DMV would become part of homeland security efforts. As I wrote in 2006, if you want Big Brother running the DMV, Real ID is your dream law. The costs are staggering, however, and the feds are expecting states to cover them. In Washington alone, start-up costs are estimated at more than $250 million for the first five years, and drivers would also pay higher license fees. The headache would also be enormous for citizens, all of whom would have to bring in numerous documents to re-prove their identity and citizenship. There are also concerns about how the information databases would be used and shared. The deadline for implementation is rapidly approaching. The first of the new licenses are supposed to be issued by the end of 2009. Maine and Arkansas have passed similar laws blocking implementation. Many other states are considering them. Alaska, Montana, and Oregon have all been debating Real ID in their legislatures. Several Web sites are tracking the anti-Real ID movement, including and In the meantime, Washington is moving ahead with its own pilot project to produce so-called "enhanced" driver's licenses that can be used to cross the Canadian border in lieu of the new federally required standard, a U.S. passport. The licenses are available to people who want to get across the border quickly and more cheaply. It's strictly voluntary, and the enhanced license will cost about $40. They will be special, however. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: The alternative license will contain a Radio Frequency Identification chip, commonly known as RFID, which the guard booths will use to scan the license as a traveler or trucker pulls up to the booth. U.S. passports issued since late 2006 already contain RFID chips. The head of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, was in Seattle in late March to help Gov. Chris Gregoire kick off the pilot program, which, if successful, could be rolled out to all the border states. He told The Seattle Times that he couldn't understand why anyone would have concerns about these enhanced licenses, which will be helpful for locals who want to attend the winter Olympic Games in British Columbia in 2010: Chertoff said concerns that such enhanced licenses could lead to invasions of privacy are misguided.

"For the life of me, I can't understand it," Chertoff said. "Right now, anyone can fabricate a driver's license in my name on Windows. Why am I better off with that?" But there are real reasons to be concerned. One is the federal government's use of "data mining" to find what President Bush might call evildoers, efforts described this way by Chertoff: Finding other creative ways to rapidly compile and sort through large volumes of information is a core function of the Department of Homeland Security, Chertoff said.

"The ability to sort through information quickly and identify patterns and linkages is to the 21st century what radar was to the 20th century," Chertoff said. "It's the way you isolate danger from a large pool of benign people."

Chertoff said he no longer refers to such activity as "data mining," because "it conjures up images that you are digging into people's personal information and extracting it." But that, in fact, is precisely what it is. And not just people moving into and out of the country. Chertoff does not rule out using such cards for internal security purposes. And we already know that the government has been abusing its power in the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping, the suspect mining of banking and phone records, and unlawful abuse (by the FBI) of the Patriot Act, just for starters. What is the basis for trust here? Why wouldn't we think that computer-chipped ID cards and surprise searches might be used to track innocent citizens or destroy our freedoms? It is already being done. On March 21, Danny Westneat wrote a column in the Times on how the U.S. Border Patrol set up a roadblock in Forks on the Olympic Peninusla – well inside the U.S. – to question citizens who weren't even crossing a border: ... [F]ederal Border Patrol agents blocked the highway outside town. For four hours, every car, truck and bus driving south on Highway 101 was pulled off the road and all passengers questioned. Computer-chip ID cards would allow the feds to scan innocent citizens for information. An article in the February King County Bar Bulletin by Christina Drummond and Roberto Sanchez of the ACLU laid out the dangers that Radio Frequency ID poses to personal privacy: Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags promise to make it easier to access toll roads, get on the bus or train, or breeze through customs and immigration at the airport. But in their present form, these tags lack safeguards to prevent the unauthorized reading, collection and misuse of their information. Their premature use in transportation and identity documents - anything dealing with people - could expose millions to identity theft, tracking and surveillance, and other invasions of privacy. Such chips are about to be used to collect tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and transportation planners are constantly extolling the virtues of smart technology. But in the current security climate, with private companies also data-mining to track consumers, and with the ever-present threat of identity theft and fraud, we might want consider some of the risks – risks Chertoff and Gregoire seem oblivious to: An RFID tag used in a toll-road system or for a bus pass could allow someone else to track driving and traveling patterns by the ID number. If that tag is in a license or passport, the implications are staggering – marketers could keep track of customers as they move through a mall, noting their shopping patterns without their knowledge; government officials could scan political meetings and rallies and record the identifiers of attendees; terrorists could scan these signals to target Americans abroad. In many respects, privacy in the U.S. is already a thing of the past – none of us have much of it left. But as a matter of public policy, protecting what remains is all the more essential. So is protecting the fundamental presumption that we have a right to freedom in the first place. Washington state is right to resist Real ID, not just on fiscal grounds but for the sake of civil liberties. The feds should dump the program, and no national ID card should be created. But we should also be careful about the kinds of technologies and compromises we make for other, seemingly more benign purposes. Time and again we have seen technologies designed for our convenience or supposed protection turned against us, and not just by terrorists.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.