How will Real ID affect you?

By Declan McCullagh  

A May deadline looms as just one flash point in a political showdown between Homeland Security and states that oppose Real ID demands. This is the last in a four-part series examining the confrontation. Today’s installment is a set of frequently asked questions, or FAQ, that we hope explains how the Real ID law affects you.

The Real ID law is touted by Homeland Security officials as an anticrime and antiterror measure, but is steadfastly opposed by some state governments on privacy and sovereignty grounds. Computer scientists also have raised concerns about how its creation of a national interlinked database would work in practice. Keep reading for more on Real ID.

Q: When does the Real ID Act take effect?
On May 11, a little more than three months from now. But states like California that have agreed to comply and ones like Pennsylvania that have requested a deadline extension are not affected–driver’s licenses from those states will continue to work for entering federal buildings and flying commercially.

Some states seem to have requested an extension as a tactical maneuver with little intention of ever complying. Washington and Idaho may fall into this category. A spokesman for Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter told us: “We’ve asked for an extension, but we still have serious concerns and reservations about it and its future here is to be determined.”

Q: Who’s going to have trouble flying or entering federal buildings starting May 11?
Residents of the five states–Maine, South Carolina, Montana, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire–that have firmly rejected Real ID. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have not decided yet, meaning they could fall into this category too.

Q: So if I live in Maine, South Carolina, Montana, Oklahoma, or New Hampshire, and I want to fly out of any U.S. airport starting May 11, what happens?
The Bush administration has not answered that question. The Transportation Security Administration referred our questions to the Department of Homeland Security. A Homeland Security spokesman told us: “That’s an operational, ongoing issue at this point in time. We’ll need to be a bit closer in.”

One likely situation is that starting May 11, security checkpoints at all U.S. airports will have a Real ID and a non-Real ID line. Non-Real ID would be in the slow line, which Homeland Security predicts will involve “delays” and “enhanced security screening.” (One official with the Portland International Airport even joked about a mandatory “full body cavity search.”)

Q: Can I use a U.S. passport instead to get in the fast line?
Yes. If you don’t have one, you’d better apply soon. The State Department estimates four to six weeks for processing.

Q: If I live in one of those noncompliant states, how do I access federal buildings, including courthouses, veteran’s hospitals, Social Security offices, and so on?
At airports, at least, you can get in the slow lane and eventually get past security. There’s no equivalent option for federal buildings that require ID: it appears that you’ll simply be denied access unless you have a passport or military ID. (Remember, of course, that not all federal buildings require ID.)

Ironically, one option for federal agencies is to stop requiring photo ID completely. Another is to be liberal in what they accept as valid identification; you could always try your Sam’s Club card or library card instead. Homeland Security already has relaxed supposedly strict rules about what ID is accepted at border crossings.

Q: Will the federal government issue more regulations about when I have to show a Real ID license?
Probably. One Homeland Security official told Congress last year that Real ID could be used for “reducing unlawful employment, voter fraud, and underage drinking.” Another recently suggested that Americans buying cold medicines like Sudafed with pseudoephedrine could be required to show Real ID.

Q: Does Homeland Security have the authority to do that kind of expansion, or can only Congress expand Real ID?
Homeland Security has the authority. The text of the law says that, starting May 11, “a federal agency may not accept, for any official purpose, a driver’s license or identification card issued by a state to any person unless the state is meeting the requirements of this section.” Official purpose is defined to include “any other purposes” that Homeland Security thinks is wise.

The potential list of “purposes” could be long. Real ID could in theory be required for traveling on Amtrak, collecting federal welfare benefits, signing up for Social Security, applying for student loans, interacting with the U.S. Postal Service, entering national parks, and so on.

Q: What about buying firearms?
That’s an open question. Homeland Security last month refused to rule out requiring Real ID for firearm purchases in the future.

When asked about requiring Real ID to buy a firearm, Homeland Security replied: “DHS will continue to consider additional ways in which a Real ID license can or should be used and will implement any changes to the definition of ‘official purpose’ or determinations regarding additional uses for Real ID consistent with applicable laws and regulatory requirements. DHS does not agree that it must seek the approval of Congress as a prerequisite to changing the definition in the future.”

Q: Which presidential candidates voted for Real ID?
All of them who were members of Congress at the time voted for Real ID except Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican.

The vote in Congress was overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal, part of a broader government spending and tsunami relief bill that was approved unanimously by the Senate and by a vote of 368 to 58 in the House of Representatives. Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain voted for it.

Q: What kind of information about me is going to be stored on the Real ID card?
This hasn’t changed substantially since our earlier FAQ published nearly three years ago. At a minimum: name, birth date, sex, ID number, a digital photograph, address, and a “common machine-readable technology” that Homeland Security approves. The card must also sport “physical security features designed to prevent tampering, counterfeiting, or duplication of the document for fraudulent purposes.”

Q: Does “common machine-readable technology” mean RFID?
Not at this point. Homeland Security has said it is not requiring that states use RFID chips, or radio frequency ID chips, in Real ID licenses. Instead, what’s required is a two-dimensional barcode called PDF417. Many states already print this or a similar barcode on their driver’s licenses.

Q: Will the information about me on the PDF417 barcode, such as my home address, be encrypted to prevent a bank or a bar or any other business from swiping it and adding me to their database?
No. Homeland Security said it would be too much work “given law enforcement’s need for easy access to the information.” It is, however, “open to considering technology alternatives to the PDF417 2D bar code in the future to provide greater privacy protections,” which could mean RFID chips in the future. U.S. passports already have RFID chips embedded.

Q: What kind of data will states share under Real ID?
Real ID will require states to share detailed information about anyone with a state ID card or driver’s license, perhaps through a network called AAMVAnet, which the Department of Transportation is paying to expand in hopes of supporting the massive amount of data that will be exchanged. Databases owned by Social Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will also be integrated. The idea is that this will allow documents such as birth certificates to be validated online.

Many of the details remain unclear because Homeland Security has not made final decisions, including about whether to build on top of AAMVAnet or expand a centralized federal database already used for commercial driver’s licensing. Computer scientists and privacy advocates unsuccessfully urged Homeland Security to reject Real ID as “unworkable” because of the security and scalability concerns.

Q: If there’s no encryption, is there at least a federal law saying that banks and bars and so on are prohibited from compiling databases of personal information based on Real ID licenses?
No. Some states like California and Texas have passed laws restricting the use of information from a swiped driver’s license. But there is no federal law.

Q: I heard something about Homeland Security giving states more time to issue Real ID-compliant licenses. What is the absolute deadline for all of this to be finished?
To make Real ID more palatable to state governments, Homeland Security extended the final deadline beyond what the text of the statute says.

In the final rule released last month, DHS said the deadline for all states to comply would be December 1, 2017. Only states that can prove they are well on their way to implementing Real ID qualify for this deadline extension.

Q: What does this mean for me if I live in one of the states that will eventually comply with Real ID?
It’s difficult to answer this question because state governments told us they haven’t had enough time to digest the final rules that Homeland Security published last month.

In general, state motor vehicle agencies will be required to verify that you are who you claim to be, which could require that you provide additional paperwork and original documents. This could mean higher costs and longer wait times at the DMV.

Q: Why do we have Real ID, anyway?
It depends on who you ask. The Bush administration will tell you that it stems from the 9/11 Commission’s suggestions, and it’ll make the country safer. The administration will also point out that some of the September 11 hijackers had fake driver’s licenses.

Critics respond by saying the September 11 hijackers could have just as easily boarded those flights using foreign passports. Another criticism is that Real ID licenses are tantamount to a national ID card, something unique in American history.

Q: What about religious objections?
Thousands of Americans do not have photographs on their driver’s licenses or state ID cards, usually because of religious objections. Approximately a dozen states currently allow this, but Real ID does not. Therefore, those licenses without photos will not be valid for flying or federal buildings starting May 11.

Q: Is there any chance that the next administration or Congress will roll back these requirements before they kick in?
It’s a little early to tell. Obama and Clinton have both expressed some concerns about Real ID, while McCain enthusiastically supports it.

Q: Is all this really going to happen? Or could Homeland Security change its mind?
Yes, it’s possible that something could change. But neither Homeland Security nor the non-Real ID states show any signs of blinking. In addition, any legal changes would probably have to originate with Congress–where a proposal to amend Real ID has been stuck in a Senate committee since February 2007.