Friday, December 12, 2008

Where does Obama stand on REAL ID?

I can safely and confidently say that I personally can't answer that question yet, not even close. Here's what we do know: Janet Napolitano opposed REAL ID as Governor of Arizona, but did so on the grounds that it was too expensive and burdensome for the states to implement. I have yet to read any strong statement from the Director of Homeland Security to be on the issue of privacy and the concept of a National ID card. This doesn't exactly make me exude confidence when taking part in discussions regarding the future of the REAL ID Act.

Making matters worse, or at least less clear, is President Elect Obama's near silence on the issue, with a couple quips here and there about "it being too expensive and burdensome for states", (I'm paraphrasing). Again, this isn't exactly the kind of condemnation and outright opposition we would hope for.

Just for a quick refresher course, the Real ID Act was approved by Congress - underhandedly as a rider I might add - and then signed into law by President Bush in 2005 as part of the government's effort to combat terrorism. At the time, few lawmakers even knew what they were voting for, or necessarily supported the concept to begin with.

Since that time the law has evoked widespread criticism from privacy advocates and civil rights groups, which say it would create a de facto national identity card system that would be hard to manage and even harder to secure. To learn everything you ever wanted to about this Big Brother power play check out

Over the past couple years states across the country have been putting up a concerted and fairly successful fight against the Federal Government - many refusing to implement the program. Even a DHS advisory committee voiced reservations about the Real ID effort last year because of privacy, security and logistical concerns.

So then, what should we expect from an Obama/Napolitano team on this issue?

To get some help answering this question let's go to Jaikumar Vijayan of Computerworld:

Thus far, Obama himself has made almost no public comments about the Real ID initiative, which calls for driver's licenses and other state-issued IDs to include digital photos and be machine-readable so the information on them can be captured by scanning devices. And on the one occasion in which Obama had an opportunity to vote on an issue related to the Real ID Act in the Senate, he didn't cast a ballot.

Meanwhile, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Obama's choice to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — the agency responsible for implementing the Real ID rules — previously signed a bill barring her state from participating in the program. Given that fact, it's uncertain how effective she would be in pushing for adoption of Real ID in her expected new role or if she would even be inclined to do so in the first place.


Other provisions in the Real ID law require participating states to store digital images of IDs for seven to 10 years and for their driver's license databases to be linked to essentially create a single large system with shared access. There's no mandate that states issue Real ID cards. But under the law, all citizens will eventually need ID cards that comply with the Real ID requirements in order to board planes, enter federal buildings and receive benefits from the federal government.


...after initially setting a deadline of last March for states to request an extension on meeting an initial set of Real ID requirements that were supposed to be implemented by May, the DHS backed off of threats to begin enforcing the law's rules, even going so far as to issue extensions to states that didn't actually ask for one.

Those moves weren't just an attempt by the DHS to appease state officials who are opposed to Real ID, Harper said, adding that the agency decided to slow down and pass the baton to the next administration. DHS officials "realized there's just no way they're going to win this" by taking a confrontational approach, he said.


Estimates that the final tab for the Real ID program could exceed $17 billion also make it a challenge to push forward, according to Harper. Even so, he doesn't expect Obama to seek an outright repeal of the law because that would likely generate criticism that the new president was being soft on terrorism and immigration-control issues.


According to Dixon, the one public comment that Obama has made about Real ID came during a primary campaign debate, when he voiced his opposition to the way the law was being implemented and the burdens it imposed on states. A perusal of Obama's Senate voting record on the Project Vote Smart Web site shows that as a senator from Illinois, Obama didn't vote on a proposal relating to Real ID funding.

So all in all, I'm relatively confident that this program as initially envisioned is dead. Too many states don't want anything to do with it, and I don't sense Obama or Napolitano are real enthusiastic about it either. But, there are "middle grounds" that will sure to be discussed and debated, and I can only hope that the President Elect puts the Constitution above any fears he may have of looking "soft on terrorism" by killing REAL ID altogether.

My guess is some kind of hybrid program will evolve, based on some of the things states are already doing, and then coming to some agreement on what "bar" is acceptable for all states to meet the program's required standards. If this is the case, we probably should expect this issue to be far from over, because there are many groups and states out there that believe, on principle, REAL ID is an abomination...and they will not give in easily.

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