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Real ID Act spurs real concerns
Conservatives join outcry against measure to create standardized identification card

Florida Today | May 13 2005

It could be a hacker's dream come true.

Imagine what a clever criminal could do with a database that held the name, digital image, signature, Social Security number and address of every licensed driver in the country.

The government insists it is a necessary tool to fight terrorism, but some citizens' groups believe it creates one-stop shopping for identity thieves and opens the door for civil rights abuses.

The Real ID Act will build a platform for this kind of database.

Passed by the Senate on Tuesday without debate, the bill was attached to an $82 billion spending package for military operations and construction in Iraq and Afghanistan. It awaits an expected presidential signature.

Within three years, all states must require proof of citizenship to get a driver's license, and states must switch to a standardized driver's license with a magnetic strip that is easily swiped though computer scanners.

Some 600 groups, including conservatives, gun owners and state governors, fear the bill.

"The government is saying, 'Trust us,' " said Alessandra Meetze, communication director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida in Miami.

The ACLU fears government abuses similar to a California incident, where those who participated in a political protest found their names on a federal "no-fly" list, Meetze said.

Beyond the civil rights concerns, the ACLU also has concerns about the potential for criminals to take advantage of the new system, which requires citizenship information, such as a birth certificate or a social security card.

"It's going to force states to link data bases for information to every driver," said Meetze. "It's going to make all us more vulnerable to ID fraud."

In Florida, drivers have had to prove citizenship with a birth certificate or passport Since July 2002.

A random sampling of citizens waiting in line at two Melbourne DMV offices turned up none who are troubled or inconvenienced by the law.

"I just called (the DMV) here to see what they needed," said Thor Peterson, 36, who moved to Cocoa from North Carolina. He presented a birth certificate and received a driver's license without delay this week.

The centralization of license data doesn't worry him.

"Identity theft is anywhere," Peterson said. "It's no different now."

Despite the ACLU's fears, the Real ID Act should help states reduce identity theft, said Maureen Todaro, director of marketing and communications for Viisage, a Massachusetts company that sold Florida the technology to authenticate identity documents.

New security procedures will help track information abuses across state lines, she said.

"It's actually quite easy for someone to go from one state to the next and create multiple identities," Todaro said.

She believes the fear that computers will constantly track U.S. citizens is unrealistic.

"Each state currently maintains its own data base. The same is the case for law enforcement. That's a separate database, as well," she said. "The reality of linking, that would take quite a while."

Critics cry foul

The Real ID Act's supporters insist it isn't a national ID card, even though air travel or entering a federal building will be impossible without it.

"If it walks like a national ID card and talks like a national ID card, and you have to carry it like a national ID card, then . . .?" said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

"We think the Senate made a terrible mistake. They've passed sweeping legislation without debate," said Rotenberg. "The federal government has opened the door for the use of the state drivers license without any safeguards."

This latest federal effort to stop terrorism might be a disappointment, said Drew Lanier, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.

"If someone is terrorist-minded, he is going to defeat the driver's license," said Lanier. "You have humans involved who can be bought."

Lanier added, however, that unless the information is misused, the new license system does not meet the classic test for invasion of privacy.

"It's a reasonable method government uses to promote national security," he said. "I think it's a fairly minimal invasion of privacy."

Immigration question

Still, Florida's license law, soon to be imitated across the U.S., causes hardship for legal migrant workers, said Jesse Zermeno, founder of Operation Hope, which helps Fellsmere's migrant population.

Despite being eligible to get driver's licenses, Zermeno said the stringent identification requirements under Florida's revamped law becomes an insurmountable obstacle. Some of the workers do not have the correct identification to receive a driver's license, while others do not have the time to go to the DMV and wait in line.

"It's a mess. People are driving illegally because they have no choice," he added. "People are using fakes in some places."

Some established immigrants, however, don't feel the new law is unfair.

"I don't see nothing discriminatory about it," said New York City doorman Hamid Juman, a native of British Guyana and a naturalized U.S. citizen. Nearly 20 years a resident of the U.S., Juman helped his nephew get a Florida ID card in Melbourne this week.

While the ACLU and immigrant advocate groups are concerned, the changes caused by the Real ID Act could go barely noticed by many Americans.

Mike Massie, 59, of Ponce Inlet was among the thousands of Floridians who renewed their driver's licenses this week, barely troubled by the requirement for more identification.

"I don't have any problem with it at all," said Massie, who received his license in Melbourne. "I have nothing to hide."

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