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May 18, 2005

Real ID Real Bad Idea

Tony Soltero

Ronald Reagan once famously referred to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire." And while that rhetoric might have been a bit over the top, it's certainly true that the old, and now thankfully defunct USSR, was a brutally repressive regime that represented an enormous threat to humanity around the world.

We all recoiled in horror at the stories we'd hear about life inside such a dreadful dictatorship - no privacy, no freedom of movement, no right to dissent - and we all were so grateful that we lived in a great country that respected the individual freedom, dignity, and privacy of its citizenry. We could trust our government to leave us alone if we so desired.

That was then, and this is now. The current Bush administration has been steadily chipping away at our civil liberties and privacy (you know, all that "freedom" stuff America's supposed to be all about) over the years, and we've now arrived at a new low. The House and the Senate have just surreptitiously passed the Real ID bill, officially giving the federal government the power - both politically and technologically - to track our every move. Leonid Brezhnev would be proud.

And we used to laugh at the Soviets for requiring their citizens to carry internal passports!

Every month, with every new anti-privacy atrocity, we become more and more like our old Soviet nemesis. Benjamin Franklin just rolled over in his grave and had a couple of heart attacks. And Thomas Jefferson's ready to rise and knock some sense into a few senators.

What goodies do we get with Real ID?

Well, for one thing, it's an unfunded mandate imposed upon our cash-strapped states, which have enough budget shortfalls to deal with as it is.

The plan is for states to coordinate drivers' license information with each other, with the data eventually residing in a national database. Think about it - your personal data, such as your name, address, social security number, health history, fingerprints, credit-card history, and other intimate details about you - is now the property of the federal government, all in one convenient location.

Think they can meet a standard of reliability and accuracy? Think they'll take better care of your information than credit-reporting bureaus? It only takes a few errors to create major social havoc. And what's to keep an unscrupulous government from deliberately "leaking" the identity of a political adversary?

The act also requires the states (remember, without federal money) to implant "common machine-readable technology" into these national ID cards. Given the nature of this requirement, which might lead to radio-frequency technologies being implemented, we'd be more vulnerable to hackers than ever. With all your personal info on a chip, identity thieves can have a field day. Maybe there's a relationship between this and the new bankruptcy bill, which doesn't even protect identity-theft victims.

But technological vulnerabilities aside, Real ID is simply wrong for a free, open society like America, a society that prides itself on minimizing the government's involvement in its citizens' lives.

The politicians, who support it, hide behind old reliables like "fighting terrorism." But would Real ID have stopped the massive terror crimes of Tim McVeigh and Eric Rudolph, both American citizens?

If the idea is to keep illegal aliens from entering the country, why not crack down upon those who employ them, instead of forcing law-abiding American citizens to surrender even more of what's left of their privacy? Have we become so paralyzed by fear and paranoia that we're that willing to kick away our freedom so passively? If that's the case, the terrorists have already won.

This bill will increase the government's control over its citizens, but it will do precious little to safeguard us from terrorist threats. That's best done by allocating resources to port security, among other - more practical - approaches.

How did this bill pass public scrutiny?

Well, our fine legislators came upon a solution to this vexing problem - they simply made sure there was no public scrutiny at all. Real ID was quietly tucked into a war-appropriations bill without any kind of national debate, or even any kind of significant awareness that the bill was coming up to a vote.

Our sorry excuse of a news media, fixated on Michael Jackson and runaway brides, barely mentioned the bill until after it passed. And since anybody who dared vote against the bill could quickly be accused of Not Supporting Our Troops (quite clever of the sponsors, don't you think?), Real ID sailed through under the radar - unanimously in the Senate.

If anything gives me hope here, it's that our senators and congressmen were too embarrassed about the implications of Real ID to allow it to come to any significant public awareness - in other words, that the public would have rejected this initiative if they'd known about it. This bill has been received extremely negatively by both knowledgeable liberals and conservatives, which helps explain why our government feels it must engage in such deceptive practices.

The good news is that many states have given indications that they'll fight the new requirements this bill imposes upon their budgets. So hopefully we'll come to our senses and realize what a bad, un-American idea Real ID is. It's just too prone to abuse.

The right to be let alone is as fundamental an American right as any. We beat the Soviets. We don't need to adopt their ways.

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