RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Just when you thought airport lines couldn't get any longer

March 17, 2008

This isn't a column about business technology per se, but I couldn't resist the temptation to write about a half-dozen states thumbing their noses at the federal government and potentially backing up travel this spring at airports all over the country, including some of the world's busiest, all over a piece of plastic. After the tragedy of 9/11, one of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations was to create a hard-to-fake identity card for Americans. In 2005, Congress passed a huge defense package that included a thenobscure requirement that the Department of Homeland Security-home of nearly every business traveler's least-liked governmental employees, the Transportation Safety Administration-devise such an identification card. Security experts have long known that eliminating fakes is impossible, just as it's impossible to prevent fake currency. The best you can do is make it difficult enough to discourage all but the most intent counterfeiters.

The Real ID Act, as the law was known, requires states to tighten up their driver's license requirements and standardize the information printed on them. The DHS was given the responsibility for getting it done. You'd need a Real ID-compliant driver's license to get on a plane, walk onto federal property, or tour a nuclear power plant. States had to comply by May 2008 or their licenses wouldn't be accepted by federal employees as valid identification.

Taken at face value, the DHS version of events on its Web site (www.dhs.gov) is innocuous. The DHS says it engaged with state officials through 2005 and 2006 before issuing its draft standard in March 2007. After 60 days, the DHS issued final regulations, and states had to comply by May 2008.

According to the DHS, although more data would be taken from driver's license applicants, it wouldn't find its way into federal databases. Nor would DHS require particular layouts on the cards or that the cards have radio-frequency identification or similar technological enhancements. DHS suggests a bar code. DHS would even help pay for the changes.

All citizens would have to replace their current driver's licenses, although not immediately. The requirements don't say that a state license would have to comply with Real ID standards by May 2008, only that their states would have to be signed on to Real ID and get the licenses changed over by 2014 for anyone born after Dec. 1, 1964, and by 2017 for anyone born before that date.

DHS didn't reckon on the states of Maine and Montana. As early as January 2007, Maine passed a resolution condemning Real ID and petitioning Congress to repeal it. Three months later, Montana went all the way, banning its motor vehicle division from complying in any way with the act. Montana's governor, Brian Schweitzer, seems to relish his role as a modern-day Patrick Henry, even actively campaigning to get his fellow governors to join him in his protest. DHS is warning that the dire result will be that, come May 8, citizens of Montana will need a passport even to enter a federal park, much less fly.

Montana wasn't alone for long. According to the American Civil Liberties Union site for Real ID, realnightmare.org, six other states have followed Montana's lead, including Georgia, making it possible that Georgians couldn't board planes leaving from their own busy Atlanta airport. Ten other states passed bills opposing Real ID in 2007. Sixteen more have bills in some stage within their legislatures. Real ID has managed to unite both the ACLU and the Libertarian Party on this one issue.

Part of the objection is financial. States are already groaning monetarily, and they see Real ID as another unfunded mandate that comes with crushing costs that DHS will only partly pay. Another argument is privacy. The Real ID Act would have states hook together their driver's license databases. Still another is the fear of a national ID card, which opponents say is the next step after Real ID. Advocates of Real ID say it would reduce identity theft, permit identification of illegal immigrants, and reduce the threat of terrorism.

Indiana signed on early. The BMV started issuing its new cards last June. But in a global economy, any state affects every other. If the TSA has to physically search every citizen of Montana, Georgia and six other states in line to board a plane, having a spanking new Hoosier driver's license won't help speed the line up much. The DHS says it can't budge on the issue, because it's just doing what Congress commanded it to do.

This is an election year, so grandstanding is a given. I'd expect compromises by the May deadline. However, come May if you're stuck in airport TSA inspection lines for hours, you'll know a likely reason why.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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