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Comment House and Senate Republicans have rammed through the so-called Real ID Act - a legislative Trojan horse that lets the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) dictate drivers' license standards to the states - by attaching it to a $76 billion military spending package for Iraq that no one in the Senate dared oppose. In addition to keeping the Iraq debacle alive, the bill increases the death benefit for US service members from a paltry $12,000 to a more reasonable $100,000, raises the maximum life insurance benefit to $400,000, and provides $100,000 for those who suffer a severe injury.

So, naturally, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate Tuesday, on the strength of Republican support-the-troops blackmail. House members had approved it by 261-161 back in February as a stand-alone measure, although that was before it became the test of patriotism over which the Senate so eagerly buckled. Last week, the House passed the spending bill to which Real ID had been attached by 368-58.

US Representative James Sensenbrenner (Republican, Wisconsin) hailed the bill's success, which he claimed will "assist in our war-on-terror efforts to disrupt terrorist operations and help secure our borders."

It will do no such thing, of course, but it will give the federal government long-sought control over the movements of Americans, which is exactly what about half of its boosters had in mind. It will also make life more difficult for undocumented immigrants, which the remaining boosters had in mind.

Within two years' time, state ID cards and driver's licenses will have to satisfy federal standards. The new cards must feature anti-counterfeiting measures and machine readable elements (i.e., RFID) approved by DHS, and anything else that DHS thinks would be useful. The language is open-ended, meaning that DHS can issue new requirements as it sees fit, whenever some new gimmick for invading the privacy of citizens captures its imagination.

State motor-vehicle departments will be required to verify each driver's Social Security number and current address, and maintain their digital photographs in a huge database along with all other information that DHS wants them to collect. States that fail to link up their databases will become ineligible for federal money.

Soon it will be impossible to obtain government services, travel domestically by hired car, intercity bus, train, or plane, enter a building, open a bank account, pay by check, drink at a pub, enroll in school, or obtain insurance without having your unique federal ID card scanned at the gate. The potential for mission creep, and for mass data aggregation, is absolutely unlimited. DHS can decree that photographs are not enough; it may decide that it also wants fingerprints, iris scans, and DNA information encoded in the cards, and in its massive databases. And Congress has given it the power to decree that, and more.

Yet the scheme is hopelessly flawed even without the attendant mass privacy invasion. Once these cards become established, they will not be challenged because they're "technologically advanced." They've got anti-counterfeiting technology, and they're all hooked up to a massive government database.

They will become the most valuable fraudulent ID documents available, and the black market supplying them will flourish in unprecedented splendor. Criminals will get them. Terrorists will get them. Illegal aliens will get them. They'll pay a lot more than they do today for identity documents, but these will be worth the expense. They'll be really convincing.

The dwindling privacy of US citizens will be eroded dramatically for no real gain in security. Much money will be spent, much privacy will be lost, and states will lose a significant measure of sovereignty, for no purpose but making a collection of middle-class control freaks in Congress feel important. The whole project would be a sad waste of money and effort, if it wasn't actually harmful.

But, hey, terrorism... ®

Related stories

Malaysia to fingerprint all new-born children
HP to build EU's biometric ID, terror database
Clarke calls for ID cards after imagining huge poison terror ring
ID scheme, IT the key to Blunkett's new terror laws

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