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License to spy
A national driverís license ó in reality, a national ID card ó would let the government track and restrict all our movements. And thatís un-American.
BY RICHARD SOBEL

TODAY, TRAVELING by T or bus is a simple cash or pass transaction. But that may not be the case much longer, if a "Real ID Card" proposal in the US Senate becomes law. Cast as a security measure that would create a national driverís license by moving the power to issue licenses from the states to the federal government, the bill is really a major step on the path to a national ID card. If it passes, it will mark a profound change in American society ó and a drastic restriction of our civil liberties.

Ostensibly, the law would create a national driverís license (NDL) by imposing federal "standards" on the states, which traditionally have set and enforced their own criteria for licensing motorists as part of their "police powers." The "Real ID" bill would change all that by giving the Department of Homeland Security power to mandate a nationally computer-linkable federal license. The measure provides for minimal "consultation" with the states on regulations and no real privacy protections. Under the Real ID, state driverís licenses and ID cards would become federal documents. By converting state licenses and ID cards, which just about everyone has, the government could make the change to national IDs seem less obtrusive and objectionable than making everyone apply for a new document.

The NDL would play a dual role as part of a national ID system: it would function as both a federal travel license and a government-benefits-authorization card. It could be required for most travel ó not just for driving or car rental, but to board planes at Logan Airport, to travel by Amtrak from South Station, or to take the T, MBTA buses, or the commuter rail. Indeed, the T-pass system, soon to be upgraded into the Tís "CharlieCard," could be reworked to deny travel to people without an NDL. In that case, even people with cash couldnít travel without a license.

The NDL could also be required to receive federal benefits like Social Security, to get a passport, or to enter a government building. (Unlike current Social Security cards, an NDL would require a photo and probably a biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint; it would also be electronically checkable in a national databank.) The demand for your NDL could become as common as requests for a Social Security number or credit cards.

AMERICANS TAKE travel rights for granted. In 1966, the Supreme Court declared in United States v. Guest that "freedom to travel throughout the United States has long been recognized as a basic right under the Constitution." In political terms, travel freedom is key when citizens want to petition government leaders. Even more fundamentally, however, the NDL would compromise the basic "right to be let alone" when not doing wrong, famously exalted by Bostonian and Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis. As ACLU of Massachusetts executive director Carol Rose notes, "Historically, governments use national ID systems to control populations rather than to protect them.... Examples include the apartheid government in South Africa and the East German Stasi [Secret Police].... The phrase ĎYour papers, pleaseí is antithetical to traditional American values of privacy and freedom of travel."

What would we gain for this infringement of our rights? The billís proponents tout it as a security measure. Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) proposed the NDL as part of immigration and asylum restrictions passed by the House (the Massachusetts House delegation voted against the bill, although it passed on a largely partisan vote of 261 to 161). But Americans will be the ones to suffer the restrictions. International "visitors" intending to do harm wonít be eligible for an NDL. Indeed, the September 11 hijackers all had passports and visas.

The NDL bill is a flawed approach to security. As news stories about unheeded airline warnings before 9/11 suggest, coordinated use of intelligence and improved airport screening would better prevent terrorism. An FBI system to connect information like the Arizona and Minnesota flight-school warnings would improve security, too.

Fortunately, people across the political spectrum oppose the NDL as both ineffective for security and injurious to our basic liberties. These opponents go well beyond the ACLU to the American Conservative Union and Liberty Coalition. Coalition director Michael Ostrolenk notes that the Real ID bill could become "a law that Ďfederalizesí our state-issued driverís licenses, creates tri-national [i.e., US, Canada, and Mexico] interlinked databases, and turns driverís licenses into an internal passport. All of these ... will place our privacy, autonomy, and, ultimately, security in jeopardy."

It remains to be seen how the bill will fare in the Senate. The Real ID proposal may be attached to the Iraq spending bill or conference report to force its passage. But a bipartisan coalition ó led by conservative New Hampshire senator John Sununu and New Jerseyís liberal Frank Lautenberg ó has opposed similar proposals. A cross-partisan coalition of New Englandís senators could also provide national leadership in opposing the act. And those concerned about the implications for travel freedom are contacting the Senate and White House.

Outside the legislative realm, challenging the constitutionality of an NDL under principles of federalism and privacy offers another avenue of opposition. In the media, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have editorialized against the bill. On the state level, meanwhile, the Montana House has already refused to adopt any national standards that would restrict state licensing powers.

Bostonians may believe that local travel cannot be restricted: "It canít happen here." But didnít the Tís plan to ask people for IDs and to search bags during the uneventful Democratic Convention raise that specter?

Over two centuries ago, when foreign troops threatened this area daily, Ben Franklin warned Josiah Quincy on September 11 that people who give away essential liberty for "a little temporary safety deserve neither." We would do well to heed his warning.

Richard Sobel researches privacy issues locally and nationally. His articles on national IDs are available at www.epic.org/privacy/hiibel


Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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