Skip to Content

Government Surveillance

No Funding for a National “REAL ID” Database?

Congress couldn’t get its act together in time to pass a proper appropriations bill for the 2009 fiscal year. Instead, last weekend it passed a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the federal government – for homeland security purposes at least – until March.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was an allocation of $100 million to fund REAL ID, the federal effort that puts us closer to a national ID card by standardizing driver’s licenses. CDT hopes Congress will repeal the exceedingly bad law, especially in light of the 21 states that have come out against REAL ID.

But what was surprising in the CR was the limitation placed on spending for REAL ID. The Act provides that individuals can only be licensed in one state at a time, thus states are required to share information with every other state to ensure that a driver’s license (or state ID card) applicant doesn’t already have a REAL ID card from somewhere else. Referencing this requirement, Section 547 of the CR states that [emphasis added]:

[N]one of the funds provided in this section for development of the information sharing and verification system shall be available to create any new system of records from the data accessible by such information technology system, or to create any means of access by Federal agencies to such information technology system other than to fulfill responsibilities pursuant to the REAL ID Act of 2005.”

To our pleasant surprise, the language above indicates that someone in Congress recognized that even if REAL ID remains on the books, federal money shouldn’t be spent on creating a disastrous new “system of records” or central ID database that the federal government can take advantage of.

Besides the obvious privacy and data security problem of unspecified information sharing between the states, CDT has been raising a red flag over the Department of Homeland Security’s and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators’ (AAMVA) stated desire to build a central ID database, which would hold highly sensitive personal information on approximately 250 million Americans – or virtually the entire population.

A robust legal framework of privacy laws doesn’t exist to protect personal information held in this kind of database, and there are no explicit legal prohibitions against the federal government accessing the data or creating a truly national ID database in the future to track the activities and movements of innocent Americans.

The catch, of course, is that only the money allocated in the CR has this spending limitation. DHS and AAMVA could easily find other funds to build out the central ID database. Even so, we hope they decide against it and instead build a state-to-state verification system that does what it’s supposed to do without seriously threatening Americans’ civil liberties.