ID, Please

If someone asks for your ID (and you're of driving age), you probably whip out your driver's license. In personal identification circles, what you obtain from your state's department of motor vehicles is considered a de facto national ID because most adults carry one and most places that require ID accept it.

But it's not really a national ID. Each state has its own DMV, with its own computer systems, and its own unique license characteristics for protecting their integrity. Not surprisingly in the post 9/11 age, there are those in government who wish we'd all just carry a single, United States ID card--maybe even one that contains biometric data about us.

Welcome to Real ID

Earlier this month, Congress passed the Real ID Act, which President Bush promptly signed into law. In fact, the House of Representatives passed the act several months earlier, but because of the controversy such an ID card engenders--mainly around privacy issues--the Real ID Act was subsequently tacked onto a bill authorizing money for troops in Iraq. Because no politician in their right mind is going to deny money to the troops, the Real ID Act became law.

Put simply, starting in 2008, you may need a new driver's license. Anyone living and working in the United States will use a federally approved ID card for everything from boarding a plane to opening a video rental account. It's possible some current state IDs will meet federal standards, but others will need an overhaul.

Should You Care?

So what's the big deal, aside from the prospect of huge lines at the DMV? The Real ID Act, as it's currently written, says each ID must contain unspecified "machine readable" information. No one knows yet what that information will be or what kind of machines will be reading it, but the Homeland Security Department gets to choose. And the department is currently experimenting with all the latest high-tech ways of identifying you.

It might be that the new ID just has a magnetic stripe with your name, address, Social Security Number, etc. Or it could carry a radio frequency identification tag, such as the one the State Department wants embedded in new passports. During congressional debates, Representative Ron Paul, R-Texas, worried that RFID technology would lead to an ID that carries far more information on a microchip than current licenses carry, including digital fingerprints or retinal scans.

What's the Big Deal?

Privacy advocates worry about, among other things, a scenario like this: If your ID is suddenly machine readable, anyone with the right machine can collect the data it contains. Today if you go into a bar, for example, the only way most bouncers can get your name, address, or other personal information is to write it down longhand or type it into a computer. On a busy Saturday night, who has time for that? But if the ID is machine-readable, and the bar sets up the right scanner, all the bouncer has to do is swipe your ID and the bar could start sending you targeted mailings.

Experts also worry that the new ID will effectively create a national database of personal information, because states will be required to share information with the federal government. Some say that much information in one place could be a boon for identity thieves.

But it may never come to that. With the right rules and regulations in place, you should be able to rest assured that the new ID you'll get in the coming years won't be abused. It's too early to push the panic button--even vigilant watchdogs such as the American Civil Liberties Union are just beginning to explore ways of defending citizens against privacy issues related to the IDs. But the prospect of a new national ID system is something everyone should stay informed on.

Former PC World executive editor Brad Grimes covers technology in government for Government Computer News in Washington, D.C.

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