By LANCE GAY
Scripps Howard News Service
May 12, 2005
The Real ID Act, which Congress attached to an Iraq war spending bill that President Bush signed this week, sets up a new national database of driver's licenses and requires motorists to provide a birth certificate and prove citizenship or legal immigration status when they get driver's licenses.
Privacy advocates contend that linking data involving so many people has never been attempted before and that securing the network from fraud or theft is going to be key to ensuring the validity of new licenses.
Supporters contend that the act will have minimal affect considering most states already require Social Security identification or other verification of legal status, and also share information on drunk-driving convictions or license suspensions.
According to recent federal indictments, corruption and carelessness by local motor vehicle offices have allowed illegal immigrants to get valid documents.
On April 26, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators announced that, after a five-month probe, thousands of illegal immigrants obtained valid identification documents by paying off three DMV license examiners in Florida and three Maryland DMV employees. The investigation also uncovered a ring in Michigan that allegedly produced phony driver's licenses, passports and other government documents.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based privacy group, lists more than a score of cases since the 9/11 attacks involving the alleged theft of information from DMV offices, or where local officials have been charged with taking kickbacks.
In one case, a Nevada DMV employee admitted she took more than $300,000 in bribes for unauthorized documents. And a man in Alaska told police he went "Dumpster diving" behind a DMV office to obtain documents he used to create a false identity so he could cash fraudulent checks.
"The problem of bribery is serious," said California security guru Bruce Schneier, founder of the security firm Counterpane Internet Security. He said that to provide any new measures of security, new driver's licenses will have to be counterfeit-proof and be linked to a tamper-proof databank containing verified information.
Schneier doubts that is possible. "It's a feel-good measure," he said. "I cannot figure out how it's going to make us any safer."
He said no government database has been built that hasn't been misused by those entrusted to keep it secure. Even Internal Revenue Service employees have combed through tax records of celebrities and friends, he noted, and there's still a serious problem with outsiders hacking into computers to change database information.
"Putting the state-run (DMV) databases together is a huge mistake. It's just going to give one-stop shopping to identity thieves _ and that is going to put us more at risk," he said.
Schneier frets that people will be deceived into believing the new driver's licenses are fraud-proof and will put too much trust in them. Even if the documents are fitted with biometric identifiers, he said the added security requires someone to check the database to verify information.
"How often does a bartender fail to look at a picture on an ID, or a shopkeeper not bother checking the signature on a credit card? How often does anybody verify a telephone number presented for a transaction?" he asked.
Having an identification card gives no indication of a person's intention to do harm, he said.
Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., sponsor of the Real ID Act, said opponents of the new law are engaging in hyperbole and that the measure makes only modest changes in how most states now issue licenses.
He said cases of "bad apples" found working in DMV offices don't undermine the need for the act. "DMV employees are human beings and some have accepted bribes. But that's no reason not to do anything," Lungren said.
The Real ID Act requires states to conduct background checks of state DMV employees and to secure areas where new driver's licenses are made. But Congress left it up to states to decide how this is to be done.
Lungren scoffed at the idea that linking state DMV databases makes them vulnerable to identity thefts. "These are ridiculous arguments. The states are already sharing information," Lungren said, noting that when people change residences, local DMV offices use existing computer networks to verify a previous legal place of residence.
Lungren said the act contains "commonsense security provisions" aimed at making it more difficult for terrorists to travel in the United States. "We think Real ID is going to be a tremendous step forward."
Sensenbrenner believes the new law would prevent another attack similar to 9/11 by preventing terrorists who illegally live in the United States from getting identification papers allowing them to blend into society unnoticed.
"Those murderers chose our driver's licenses and state IDs as their forms of identification because these documents allowed them to blend in and not raise suspicion or concern," the lawmaker said.
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