Released 10 May 2005  By Declan McCullagh, CNet Newscom
Q: What's all the fuss with the Real ID Act about?
A: President Bush is expected to sign an $82 billion military spending
bill soon that will, in part, create electronically readable, federally
approved ID cards for Americans. The House of Representatives
overwhelmingly approved the package--which includes the Real ID Act--on
Thursday (May 5).
Q: What does that mean for me?
A: Starting three years from now, if you live or work in the United
States, you'll need a federally approved ID card to travel on an
airplane, open a bank account, collect Social Security payments, or take
advantage of nearly any government service. Practically speaking, your
driver's license likely will have to be reissued to meet federal
Q: How will I get one of these new ID cards?
A: You'll still get one through your state motor vehicle agency, and it
will likely take the place of your drivers' license. But the
identification process will be more rigorous.
A: For instance, you'll need to bring a "photo identity document,"
document your birth date and address, and show that your Social Security
number is what you had claimed it to be. U.S. citizens will have to
prove that status, and foreigners will have to show a valid visa.
State DMVs will have to verify that these identity documents are
legitimate, digitize them and store them permanently. In addition,
Social Security numbers must be verified with the Social Security
Q: What's going to be stored on this ID card?
A: At a minimum: name, birth date, sex, ID number, a digital photograph,
address, and a "common machine-readable technology" that Homeland
Security will decide on. The card must also sport "physical security
features designed to prevent tampering, counterfeiting, or duplication
of the document for fraudulent purposes."
Homeland Security is permitted to add additional requirements--such as a
fingerprint or retinal scan--on top of those. We won't know for a while
what these additional requirements will be.
Q: Why did these ID requirements get attached to an "emergency" military
A: Because it's difficult for politicians to vote against money that
will go to the troops in Iraq and tsunami relief. The funds cover
ammunition, weapons, tracked combat vehicles, aircraft, troop housing,
death benefits, and so on.
The House already approved a standalone version of the Real ID Act in
February, but by a relatively close margin of 261-161. It was expected
to run into some trouble in the Senate. Now that it's part of an Iraq
spending bill, senators won't want to vote against it.
Q: What's the justification for this legislation anyway?
A: Its supporters say that the Real ID Act is necessary to hinder
terrorists, and to follow the ID card recommendations that the 9/11
Commission made last year.
It will "hamper the ability of terrorist and criminal aliens to move
freely throughout our society by requiring that all states require proof
of lawful presence in the U.S. for their drivers' licenses to be
accepted as identification for federal purposes such as boarding a
commercial airplane, entering a federal building, or a nuclear power
plant," Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, said during
the debate Thursday.
Q: You said the ID card will be electronically readable. What does that
A: The Real ID Act says federally accepted ID cards must be "machine
readable," and lets Homeland Security determine the details. That could
end up being a magnetic strip, enhanced bar code, or radio frequency
identification (RFID) chips.
In the past, Homeland Security has indicated it likes the concept of
RFID chips. The State Department is already going to be embedding RFID
devices in passports, and Homeland Security wants to issue
RFID-outfitted IDs to foreign visitors who enter the country at the
Mexican and Canadian borders. The agency plans to start a yearlong test
of the technology in July at checkpoints in Arizona, New York and
Q: Will state DMVs share this information?
A: Yes. In exchange for federal cash, states must agree to link up their
databases. Specifically, the Real ID Act says it hopes to "provide
electronic access by a state to information contained in the motor
vehicle databases of all other states."
Q: Is this legislation a done deal?
A: Pretty much. The House of Representatives approved the package on
Thursday by a vote of 368-58. Only three of the "nay" votes were
Republicans; the rest were Democrats. The Senate is scheduled to vote on
it next week and is expected to approve it as well.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan has told reporters "the president
supports" the standalone Real ID Act, and the Bush administration has
come out with an official endorsement. As far back as July 2002, the
Bush administration has been talking about assisting "the states in
crafting solutions to curtail the future abuse of drivers' licenses by
Q: Who were the three Republicans who voted against it?
A: Reps. Howard Coble of North Carolina, John Duncan of Tennessee, and
Ron Paul of Texas.
Paul has warned that the Real ID Act "establishes a national ID card"
and "gives authority to the Secretary of Homeland Security to
unilaterally add requirements as he sees fit."
Q: Is this a national ID card?
A: It depends on whom you ask. Barry Steinhardt, director of the
American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program, says:
"It's going to result in everyone, from the 7-Eleven store to the bank
and airlines, demanding to see the ID card. They're going to scan it in.
They're going to have all the data on it from the front of the
card...It's going to be not just a national ID card but a national
At the moment, state driver's licenses aren't easy for bars, banks,
airlines and so on to swipe through card readers because they're not
uniform; some may have barcodes but no magnetic stripes, for instance,
and some may lack both. Steinhardt predicts the federalized IDs will be
a gold mine for government agencies and marketers. Also, he notes that
the Supreme Court ruled last year that police can demand to see ID from
law-abiding U.S. citizens.
Q: Will it be challenged in court?
A: Maybe. "We're exploring whether there are any litigation
possibilities here," says the ACLU's Steinhardt.
One possible legal argument would challenge any requirement for a
photograph on the ID card as a violation of religious freedom. A second
would argue that the legislation imposes costs on states without
properly reimbursing them.
Q: When does it take effect?
A: The Real ID Act takes effect "three years after the date of the
enactment" of the legislation. So if the Senate and Bush give it the
thumbs-up this month, its effective date would be sometime in May 2008.
Declan McCullagh, CNet Newscom, May 6, 2005