WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government unveiled new security requirements for Americans’ driver’s licenses with a get-tough message on Friday for states that have refused to comply due to cost and privacy concerns.
Under the program announced by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, driver’s licenses or other identification issued by states must be electronically readable, with new safeguards to protect against fraud.
Congress passed legislation in 2005 mandating the so-called Real ID program, after some of the suicide hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks were found to have obtained U.S. driver’s licenses.
The program takes effect in stages beginning this May, and the first actual licenses are due to be issued by 2011. But 17 states have passed legislation opposing the program, including six that have banned participation.
Unless those six states — Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Washington — seek an extension by May, residents will have to submit other identification such as a passport, or face extra screening if they want to board a commercial flight, Chertoff told a news conference.
“It’s going to be inconvenient. There’s no question the law creates a very powerful incentive for states getting on board with this process,” he said.
According to Chertoff, the new licenses would also be a barrier to identity theft and illegal immigration — which has become a hot election issue, especially among Republicans.
“There are three categories of people who will be very unhappy about secure driver’s licenses: terrorists ... illegal immigrants ... and con men,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union dismissed the tough talk as a meaningless bluff and called the plan an “train wreck” that Congress must repeal.
“This is going to be impossible to implement. It’s going to be a real nightmare for American drivers,” said Barry Steinhardt, head of the ACLUs technology program. “It’s bad for security. It’s bad for privacy ... Just the hassle factor alone makes it clear that it’s bad.”
Critics say the program will amount to a national identification card — which Americans have long opposed as a symbol of an overly powerful central government. They also say the program fails to prevent businesses from reading the digital information on the cards to sell or use in marketing.
Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would seek to repeal the program.
Real ID, he said, “will not only lead to long lines at every (motor vehicle office), it will impose a massive unfunded mandate on state governments while offering absolutely no federal privacy protections to our citizens.”
Some 227 million people hold drivers’ licenses or identity cards given out by U.S. states, which issue or renew about 70 million each year.
Under the Real ID program, states would be required to verify documents presented with license applications and to link their license databases into a national electronic network.
By December 31, 2009 states must have in place upgraded systems to ensure illegal immigrants cannot obtain the digital licenses, electronically check Social Security numbers and ensure that applicants do not have multiple identities.
To address states’ costs concerns, the Homeland Security department set lengthy deadlines for issuing licenses and offered local officials $360 million to defray the costs.
The department said the cost of complying would be about $3.9 billion, down from $14.6 billion estimated earlier.
It said it reduced the cost mainly by stretching out the period over which older drivers would be required to get new identification cards.
People under 50 must have the new licenses or other identification cards by December 2014, while those older will have an additional three years. The department originally wanted the program to be fully operational by 2013.
Chertoff also said there were protections in place to prevent unauthorized use of the data by state employees.