REAL ID == Imaginary Security

One of the occupational hazards of being ideologically perched between conservatism and libertarianism is that you're occasionally irked by both sides. (Liberals, "progressives" and other lefties are, on the other hand, almost consistently annoying.)

Some libertarians occasionally revert to their "civil libertarian" mode, for example; they often seem bent on living up to their caricature as coddlers of criminals and terrorists, viewing law enforcement and security measures as part of a continuing effort to turn the US into Nazi Germany. (Recent example described here.)

But conservatives also sometimes manage to irritate. Such is the case with National Review's recent editorial in favor of REAL ID, new federal regulations that govern standards for state-issued ID cards, typically driver's licenses.

This is spurred by the 9/11 Commission's recommendations. Some of the 9/11 terrorists had fake IDs; some of them had real IDs obtained under false pretenses; some were real, but had fake names, courtesy of a crooked DMV employee. Hence, the logic goes, we must Do Something about IDs.

REAL ID is billed as an anti-terrorist measure, but it's one that broad-brushes just about every single law-abiding American as a potential terrorist. I.e., it's being brought about by the same mentality that designed airport security. It's reactive, overly broad, and (arguably) won't do much to actually make us safer. And, since it doesn't make us safer, it wastes resources that could be used to make us safer.

One valid point made in the NR editorial: A lot of opposition to REAL ID is overblown, in the typical "civil" libertarian mode: aieee, the Gestapo's gonna get us! That's an unfortunate but irresistible debating tactic in a land where millions of people remember watching movies where where the foreign-accented baddies hiss "Your papers, please" to the heroes trying to escape. We don't have to go there; REAL ID is a bad idea, not an evil one.

The rest of NR's arguments are weak. Example:

Any modern society must have a means of identifying people—for national security, business transactions, and more. Most countries have opted for unitary national-identification documents.
This is the "everybody's doing it, Mom" argument that NR would laugh out of existence if it were applied to (say) socialized healthcare. In fact, the US has done OK without (so far) a single top-down, one-size-fits-all ID system. In reality, people working close to a problem can evolve appropriate security systems, to fit specific needs, making trade-offs as necessary to conform to their other requirements.

NR also says:

As for the fiscal objection, the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators have calculated that compliance with the new standards will require $1 billion in one-time infrastructure costs, while Congress has only provided $40 million in the REAL ID Act. Even if this proves to be an exaggeration, the cost problem is real and should be met by disbursing more federal money if the homeland-security funds already provided are insufficient.
Unfortunately, the link goes to a headlined article:
This is a five-year estimate; the "one-time" costs NR trumpets are actually small compared to ongoing costs. And (as the article makes clear) that's not all:
The report also suggests additional costs, such as the added time and effort citizens will spend to comply with the state motor vehicle department. Anticipating three to four identity documents per applicant, with more than 80 million transactions performed annually, applicant processing time will more than double for citizens in most states, with waits in some areas increasing by up to 200%. Several provisions under consideration by the Department of Homeland Security were not addressed by the survey, and could potentially further impact citizens and DMVs and add significantly to the costs described above.
Again, if this were a different context—some intrusive new wrinkle in the tax code, for example—NR would be out in front in questioning whether such an expenditure by governments and the citizenry was actually worthwhile. But those honorable critical faculties are shut off in this case, and all NR can manage is: Pay up, sucka!

By the way, Homeland Security estimates a ten-year discounted price at $17 billion, counting costs from governments and individuals. Given the nature of government cost estimation, it's a safe bet that's a lowball. (Via Cato@Liberty.)

Other people have made the (non-Gestapo) arguments against REAL ID pretty well. Here are some links:

  • I disagree with Bruce Schneier at times, but on this issue he's pretty convincing. Here is a recent article from him; here is what he wrote a couple years back. Both articles have links to a lot of other resources. One key quote:
    A reliance on ID cards is based on a dangerous security myth, that if only we knew who everyone was, we could pick the bad guys out of the crowd.

  • Also consistently thoughtful on all sorts of ID matters is Jim Harper of Cato. Here is his testimony last year to a committee of the New Hampshire State Senate (which, unfortunately, didn't take his advice at the time). Here he fact-checks a Congresscritter's reassurances about the database-sharing provisions of the REAL ID legislation. Here are his thoughts after testifying recently to other state legislative committees. He paraphrases one of his co-testifiers, a state Homeland Security official:
    Along with his philosophical objections to a national ID, he pointed out its practical weaknesses as a security tool. You can nail down the identity of everyone and you'll be no better off in preventing something like a terrorist attack. And as soon as you come out with a highly secure, highly valuable ID like the REAL ID, the hackers and forgers will go to work on faking it or corrupting someone in order to get it. It's a good security practice to diversify your protections rather than creating a single point of failure like the REAL ID Act does. You might make yourself less safe if you rely on a uniform ID system for your security.

  • You might want to check out this recent Slashdot post, which contains valuable links to Homeland Security documents and a C|Net FAQ. (As always with Slashdot, comments are safe to ignore.)

Check 'em out. If you want me, I'll be in the basement, ransacking my files, trying to find my passport, my birth certificate, my library card …

Last Modified 2012-10-19 2:31 PM EDT