The other day I was in line to pass through security at the Columbus airport when I saw a sign announcing that, effective January 22, 2018, drivers’ licenses from certain states will not be accepted at TSA checkpoints as appropriate identification. According to the sign, licenses from Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana and Washington are not compliant with something called the REAL ID Act.
REAL ID Act? Of course, the name brought back memories of high school days, when your more daring classmates would proudly if furtively show you the fake ID they had acquired (featuring, of course, a name other than “McLovin”) in hopes of buying beer at the local carryout. The TSA sign seemed kind of weird, and I found myself wondering why the federal government has a problem with the licensed issued by the “m” states . . . and Washington. So I followed the instructions on the sign and went to the tsa.gov website to see what it was all about.
It turns out that in 2005 Congress passed something called the REAL ID Act. The Act establishes certain federally mandated minimum security standards governing issuance of drivers’ licenses and identification cards by states, and if the states are non-compliant, their licenses won’t be accepted for certain federal purposes — like passing through the federally operated security checkpoint at domestic airports. (You also will need a REAL ID Act compliant drivers’ license if you want to get into a nuclear power plant, in case you were wondering.) Ohio and a number of states are already compliant, still other states have received extensions to become compliant, and the four “m” states are noncompliant.
Why are some states resisting? According to a member of the Maine state legislature, it’s because of concerns about privacy and the possibility that the Department of Homeland Security could interlink the information from the state drivers’ license bureaus to create a national identity database. She also states that, to get a REAL ID drivers license, individuals must have their photograph taken with facial recognition software and have documents like a certified birth certificate and original social security card scanned into a database, where it will be kept for seven years — and, she notes, potentially would be accessible to hackers who are constantly trying to get to confidential personal information. Her description of the bill, and the reasons for her opposition, ends on this ominous note: “And how much do you trust the federal government?”
I’m as interested in privacy as the next person, but it’s hard for me to get too excited about the REAL ID law. Obviously, there is a need for identification cards, and all of the information that is collected as part of the REAL ID process seems to be already in possession of the federal and state governments, anyway. I’m quite confident that the federal government knows what I look like (or could find out with a few strokes of a keyboard), facial recognition photos or not. And since I have to fly frequently for my job, I need to have an ID card that gets me through security — so I’m glad Ohio licenses are compliant.
It’s troubling to think that people are so distrustful of the federal government that they would be concerned about a database that included photos and basic identification information, like Social Security numbers, that people routinely disclose on things like tax returns. It says something about the fraying relationship between the government and the governed that the question of appropriate identification could be so controversial.