Most Americans use a state-issued driver’s license as their primary identification card. However, federal-level politicians have pushed throughout history for the implementation of a national ID card, which privacy and states’ rights advocates have argued against as a threat to citizens’ private information or an affront to state authority. Reports of a move towards a national ID card were often dismissed by skeptics as conspiracy theories until 2005, when the REAL ID Act passed into law. However, the REAL ID has experienced significant pushback from many non-compliant states, forcing federal officials to delay its implementation.
Fast forward nearly a decade, and the REAL ID is set to launch in airports across the United States starting in January of 2016. According to KTVN-2, the Transportation Security Administration will no longer accept state-issued driver’s licenses that lack REAL ID compliant features as an accepted form of ID for boarding aircraft after the beginning of next year.
However, the adoption of the REAL ID by citizens is being portrayed as voluntary. Said Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles Public Information Officer David Fierro in comments to KTVN-2, “It is a choice. It’s not mandatory. It’s a choice for secured identification. If you use a passport when you’re traveling you don’t have any problems. If you use your driver’s license as identification, you’ll need to either apply for the REAL ID card or get a passport.” While adoption of the federal REAL ID card by citizens may not be mandatory, those who choose not to get a passport or REAL ID will effectively be barred from airline travel.
REAL ID compliant cards must capture specific identifying details about each person and associate the data with a unique number. Privacy advocates worry that the REAL ID’s information database will eventually merge with other federal data sweeps such as the FBI’s Next Generation Identification system, which stores biometric data on Americans (many of whom have never been suspected of committing a crime), and the National Security Agency’s trove of stolen private online and mobile communications. The cards must also contain an electronic swipe feature allowing machines to read and write to them, raising fears that the REAL ID may be vulnerable to tampering by hackers and identity thieves. Though early versions of the regulations on REAL IDs required that the cards feature an RFID chip, that specific type of technology is no longer explicitly required.
However, some US states, such as Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, and Idaho, have passed laws against participating in the REAL ID program, meaning state-issued ID cards from those states may not be compliant in time for 2016. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 20-30% of Americans live in jurisdictions that are not compliant with the program, meaning citizens in those areas may no longer be able to use their state-issued driver’s licenses to board aircraft after January 2016. KIVI-TV notes that Idaho legislators are currently scrambling to find a solution to this problem.
The REAL ID’s implementation process is designed to come in four stages, two of which are already complete. The first two phases require the use of compliant cards to get into nuclear power plants and restricted federal facilities. The third phase of implementation, coming in October, mandates the presentation of REAL ID cards in order to enter semi-restricted federal facilities such as courthouses and military bases that require identification for admittance, with a waiver granted for individuals seeking entry to apply for federal benefits. The last phase of implementation, set to begin in January of 2016, will take place during security checks at airports.