Is full Real ID compliance worth privacy risks?

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Real ID is one of those government marketing terms designed to make something burdensome seem exciting and innovative.

One of many responses to the terror attacks on 9/11, it describes a federal mandate that every state beef up the security of its driver’s licenses. To comply, states would have to require residents to produce documents proving they are citizens or in the country legally. Those documents would be verified, scanned and stored in a national database.

If a state doesn’t go along, its driver’s licenses would no longer be accepted as proof of identity for boarding airliners or entering federal buildings and facilities.

That’s a potent threat set to begin next year. But the Washington Legislature balked in 2007, becoming just the second state to refuse to take part unless the feds paid the high cost and could guarantee the privacy of all those documents.

Other states followed, and the hope was that the federal government would back down.

It hasn’t, even though only 13 states are in full compliance. While 20 others are at least in conversation with Department of Homeland Security, 17 have not even answered the federal government’s letters.

Washington is in the middle group. In December, the state Department of Licensing received a letter from Homeland Security informing it that the state had made progress but still falls short.

Licensing has improved the security of its licenses, in part by using facial recognition software to catch people trying to get multiple licenses or licenses under different names. It also now requires a Social Security number, proof of identity like birth certificates, and proof of residency like utility bills and bank statements. Those documents are scanned and stored digitally.

All together, the state either meets or expects to meet 24 of 38 criteria by the end of 2014. That should be enough, the state argues.

But the remaining gaps are significant and perhaps fatal. Washington remains one of two states that does not require proof of citizenship or legal residency to get a license so it does not ask for such documents, let alone verify and scan them. And state law prohibits DOL from spending money to tie those documents into a national database (which doesn’t exist yet anyway).

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said she supported the Legislature’s position on Real ID in 2007, mostly because of the cost but also over privacy concerns.

“It was an overreach on the part of the federal government,” she said.

Despite the pending deadlines and the potential risk that Washingtonians without passports or enhanced licenses might be blocked from flights, there is no push this session to end the state’s prohibition against full compliance with Real ID.

So Washington will remain out of compliance when the latest deferral of enforcement ends in the fall. What then? Will the federal government really tell a majority of Americans they can’t use their licenses to fly? Would the State Department really be prepared to handle the rush of passport applications that might result? Will residents revolt and tell the Legislature to act?

Or will Homeland Security yet again put off full enforcement? The department suggests that it may and that states that are cooperating will be in the best position to get more time. Those states, however, must also be “committed to full implementation.” Given the current law, Washington clearly is not.

Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton was a member of the 9/11 Commission that recommended federal standards for driver’s licenses.

“The idea of a totally valid license is a very good one, and it might be good for DHS to at least ramp up the pressure,” Gorton said.

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