Publicity Is Privacy, Or Something Like That

Who Loves Real ID? AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo Do.
Friday, September 28, 2007

The federal Real ID Act doesn’t have many friends these days. Eighteen states have passed legislation rejecting the law, Congress has refused to put any money into implementing it, and just this week New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer announced he, not the Feds, would determine New York’s drivers license policy, with officials in his administration indicating the state might opt out of the Real ID program altogether.

The few remaining cheerleaders for this national ID system, which promises to be a nightmare for privacy and identity security, have resorted to classic doublespeak to try to salvage Real ID’s reputation. On the Department of Homeland Security blog Wednesday, Secretary Michael Chertoff claims Real ID would actually protect privacy. (“War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery” will be the subjects of future blogs.)

Chertoff isn’t completely alone though. The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) sent a letter to Congress this week begging for more federal funding for Real ID. Why would an organization, whose membership includes AOL, Microsoft, Verizon and Yahoo, support a national ID card? For the answer, let’s employ that fundamental adage of Washington politics: Follow the money.

Also included in the ITAA membership list are Digimarc and Northrop Grumman, companies that specialize in creating high-tech ID cards, as well as Choicepoint and LexisNexis, data brokers that make their money selling personal information about you to advertisers and the government. These companies stand to make millions in contracts from states who are struggling with a federal mandate to overhaul their licensing systems and share more data by the May 2008 deadline (now widely viewed as impossible to meet).

But there’s one small problem: The American people don’t want a national ID card, and polling has shown they don’t trust the private sector not to harvest their data once it’s collected in a national database. So what are the Department of Homeland Security and the ITAA to do?

Well, Digimarc invited a group of state DMV bureaucrats to Washington this week (as Jim Harper pointed out, that’s a good way to get around those pesky elected officials who oppose Real ID) in order to answer that very question. Their answer? It’s all about PR, baby. In a panel on “Bringing Your Public On Board,” participants discussed how to give Real ID a facelift. According to CNET’s, one panelist even suggested that states use their homeland security grants — the ones that are supposed to go to counterterrorism, disaster response and infrastructure (read: bridge) safety — to take out paid advertising.

Real ID is so unpopular because in addition to being a $23 billion unfunded mandate, it will build a vast national database of personal information, expose us to a greater risk of identity theft, and move us ever closer to a total surveillance society. Spending our homeland security money on spin definitely isn’t the way to fix it.

Instead Congress should scrap Real ID altogether and replace it with a real plan for identity security that protects privacy. And if you don’t like companies you do business with pushing a national ID and increased identity theft, pick up the phone and let them know.


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