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NYCLU: New York Must Reject Real ID

The New York Civil Liberties Union calls on Gov. Eliot Spitzer to protect American values and reject the federal Real ID Act – a law that would create the first national identification system in American history and endanger New Yorkers’ privacy rights.

The New York Civil Liberties Union calls on Gov. Eliot Spitzer to protect American values and reject the federal Real ID Act – a law that would create the first national identification system in American history and endanger New Yorkers’ privacy rights.

The Department of Homeland Security today issued its final regulations for the implementation of the Real ID Act, which Congress passed in May 2005 with little debate.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, said the regulations simply attempt to put a pretty face on an ugly, dangerous law.

“Regulations cannot fix a fundamentally rotten law – it’s like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” she said. “The new regulations do not defuse the substantial threats the law poses to New Yorkers’ privacy, freedoms and pocketbooks. Governor Spitzer must stand up for American values, protect our privacy and reject the Real ID Act once and for all.”

On Oct. 27, 2007, Spitzer became the first governor in the nation to agree to implement the Real ID Act. He did so to gain support for his failed effort to provide undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses. The governor soon abandoned his license proposal, but his agreement with DHS remains in effect.

The Real ID Act attempts to set federal standards for the issuance and appearance of state driver’s licenses and identification cards, but it goes much further. Driver’s licenses and ID cards would have to meet these standards to be accepted for “official purposes” by federal agencies, which would include boarding a commercial aircraft, entering federal facilities, such as federal courthouses, and any other purposes the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security determines are necessary.

The law places no limits on potential required uses for Real IDs. In time, Real IDs could be required to vote, collect a Social Security check, open a bank account, go to a Yankees game, access Medicaid or buy a gun. The private sector could begin mandating a Real ID to perform countless commercial and financial activities, such as renting a DVD or buying car insurance. Real ID cards would become a necessity, making them de facto national IDs.

“If New York submits to the Real ID Act, it would mean that ordinary, good people could be excluded from flying, accessing the justice system, voting – the list goes on,” said Udi Ofer, NYCLU advocacy director. “Married women who changed their name but their birth certificate doesn’t reflect these changes could be disenfranchised, as could low-income and older Americans who don’t have access to their original birth certificates.”

If implemented, the Real ID Act could establish an enormous electronic infrastructure that government and law enforcement officials – or whoever else hacks in – could use to track Americans’ activities and movements. This vast network of interlinking databases would contain enormous amounts of Americans’ personal information – such as Social Security numbers, photos and copies of birth certificates – and would be accessible to federal and DMV employees across the 50 states and U.S. territories.

“This national mega-database would be a goldmine for identity thieves,” Lieberman said. “There’s no reason that a DMV worker in Guam should be able to see a grandmother in Schenectady’s Social Security number. Our private information would only be as safe as the DMV or state office with the weakest security system.”

The law also mandates that all driver’s licenses and ID cards have a “machine-readable zone” that would facilitate tracking by the government and private sector. Real IDs would leave a digital fingerprint whenever swiped, scanned or read. Inevitably, Americans will likely have to produce a Real ID card to perform any number of government and commercial transactions. Information captured from each transaction could be used by the government and corporations to develop detailed profiles of people’s daily activities.

Governor Spitzer acknowledged the law’s substantial privacy threats in comments his administration submitted to DHS following the release of Real ID draft regulations last March. The comments detail the administrations concerns about the security of information stored in the database network and the risk of identity theft. The administration also expressed concerns about the amount of information required in the machine-readable zone. The regulations do not address these important problems.

“Coming from the administration that brought us the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping, the possibilities the Real ID Act creates are endless, as is the potential for abuse,” Ofer said.

At a time when New York is facing a $4 billion budget deficit, the Spitzer administration has estimated that implementation of the Real ID Act would cost New York at least $84 million annually, including the opening of 10 new DMV offices. That figure doesn’t include the millions of dollars necessary to maintain the databases and verification systems the law requires.

“The Real ID Act is rotten to its core,” Lieberman said. “But New York does not have to submit to President Bush’s Real ID Act. In fact, the Real ID Act contains so many threats to our privacy and pocketbooks that 17 states* have already passed legislation critical of it. Governor Spitzer must join with bipartisan movement of Democratic and Republican governors across the country that has rejected the Real ID Act as a threat to American values.”

* Seven states passed binding legislation to stop Real ID (Georgia, Maine, New Hampshire, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Washington), and 10 additional states have passed resolutions registering their dissent (Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, North Dakota, Nebraska, Arkansas, Illinois, Tennessee, Hawaii and Missouri).

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