- Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 January 2009 19:35
- Published on Wednesday, 07 January 2009 19:35
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It’s a familiar scene in a number of Cold War era spy movies. A train is entering East Germany, always at night, on its way to East Berlin and a police officer is walking down the aisle saying, “papers, papers, please...” The highlight is that particularly tense moment when the officer, eyeing the passenger suspiciously, gives the paperwork the once over.
In all Communist countries, from the Soviet Union, to the smaller states, national identity cards were a given. No repressive national government can live without them. Citizens were tracked and monitored all the time. It was just part of life in a totalitarian state.
While most of the Communist block has withered away, even today, national identity cards and internal travel papers are still common in some countries. But in the United States, with the exception of the way we use social security numbers, there has never been anything remotely close to a national identity system.
Nearly forty years ago President Nixon was presented with a proposal to create a national identity program, but he dismissed the notion out of hand saying it was “Un-American.” Ronald Reagan, in the early 1980’s, was shown a similar proposal. Reagan said he was thoroughly opposed to any kind of national identity card.
When President Clinton, in the early days of his administration, proposed a national health card, there was an immediate outcry that this was the first step in creating a national identity card. This charge was quite a stretch. His health care proposals died for other reasons, but that complaint didn’t help any.
Now, however, thanks to a bill enacted in 2004, it seems we’re on our way to a national identity card after all. In a way, it sort of snuck up on us. The “Real ID Act,” passed by a Congress that would approve anything as long as it had the word security in it, requires the standardization of state driver’s licenses.
On the surface that doesn’t sound particularly menacing. That is, until you read a bit more. What the federal government wants to do is substantially enhance the data carried on all licenses and then connect all of the state driver’s license data bases through one hub so that they can be easily searched. The Department of Homeland Security says that this is for the purposes of making sure that holders don’t have duplicate licenses in other states. But somehow that doesn’t seem like a convincing argument.
Real ID is more than just a driver’s license. The legislation includes a number of new information requirements, ones that don’t have a lot to do with operating a vehicle to include fingerprints, biometric information, machine readability and possibly a data chip. This all takes time and money to implement, and to make it a reality, the states, and each legislature has to do this, have to pass special legislation.
The federal government is pushing hard on this one and is threatening not to recognize a state’s driver’s license, for say, purposes of air travel, unless it conforms to the Real ID requirements. That’s a powerful incentive, particularly, if on some date in the future, people without a nationally approved driver’s license can’t travel.
As the result of this mandate most states, some reluctantly, have gone along with the idea. There has been relatively little resistance. However, with the deadline approaching several states, and even a few who have already approved the legislation, are having second thoughts. Virginia is one of them.
Under the law, everyone born after 1964 will have to have a nationally approved driver’s license by 2014 and anyone born before that will have until 2017. These requirements are going to make getting a driver’s license more expensive and time consuming than it already is. The data requirements are considerable, and could involve, at least in some cases, some form of a modified background check.
However, there are several legislators in Virginia who are having second thoughts about complying with the federal mandate. They think that Real ID is an invasion of privacy and they aren’t at all comfortable with the notion of a national identity system. Many in the state are also concerned about the cost and inconvenience drivers will face in getting a license in the future.
Real ID has been approved, almost effortlessly in most states, and the modest uprising the Virginia General Assembly, may be too little, too late. The legislature has a lot to worry about during the upcoming session. But, the bills that have been introduced, with the support of civil libertarians and conservatives, may at least add a hint of caution to what seems to be a rush towards a national identity card.