REAL ID concerns wildly exaggerated

  • By WIN GRUENING
  • Friday, May 26, 2017 8:28am
  • Opinion

In the waning hours of the 30th Legislature, House Bill 16 was passed allowing Alaska’s participation in the Federal REAL ID program. This action reversed almost a decade of near-unanimous legislative opposition.

On its face, the legislation seemed simple. It brings Alaska in compliance with federal requirements for a more secure and reliable identification system for individuals. But the debate around this bill, as in the 10 years preceding it, revolved around privacy concerns and the use of a national database.

For those who haven’t followed this controversy, a little history. REAL ID was adopted by Congress in 2005 to tighten state identification card requirements after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. Yet resistance to the law delayed its complete implementation for years as states sought and received multiple extension waivers.

In fact, Alaska passed legislation in 2008 barring state expenditures to implement REAL ID. However, the approaching deadline for final compliance forced the Legislature to act. Otherwise, Alaskans eventually wouldn’t have been able to use their Alaska Driver License (ADL) for identification to access many military and government facilities or TSA checkpoints for boarding commercial aircraft.

In the days leading up to HB 16’s final passage, opponents of REAL ID decried the loss of privacy that would surely result. Anchorage Rep. Chris Tuck, the Democrat House Majority Leader, publicly implored Gov. Bill Walker to “withdraw his legislation and instead sue the federal government to defend our state.”

It’s hard to understand what all the gnashing of teeth is about. In their rush to neutralize this legislation, detractors apparently didn’t bother to listen to testimony by the Department of Administration (DOA) that under REAL ID very little will change.

An ACLU spokesperson went so far as to accuse the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) of “engaging in troubling and unauthorized activity in advance of REAL ID.” This was partly referencing the routine scanning of the two forms of identification provided by applicants for ADLs and the digital archival of photos and application data.

However, as explained by DOA, this has been the procedure for years — mandated when DMV was directed by statute to go “paperless” — and is just an extension of best practices to improve efficiency. It also allows DMV to quickly issue duplicate cards when necessary as well as offer online renewals. More importantly, it aids in internal auditing and assists law enforcement agencies during criminal investigations.

Several years ago, DMV also began issuing newer, more secure driver licenses to make forgeries more difficult and combat identity theft. After all, apart from REAL ID, what good is an ADL if allowed to become insecure and unreliable and ultimately no longer acceptable as a universal form of identification?

The one change the public may notice under REAL ID is the requirement for DMV to verify the authenticity of source documents used to establish identity. Currently, such documents are accepted at face value. Under Alaska’s new law, applicants will choose either a “non-compliant” or a “REAL ID compliant” ID or driver license. If non-compliant, their source documents won’t be verified but, either way, will continue to be scanned and entered into the DMV database.

Holders of “non-compliant IDs” should be aware, however, they’ll need to carry alternative approved identification (such as a passport) to access TSA checkpoints and some government facilities in the future.

But most opposition to REAL ID stems from the misperception that scanned personal information (such as birth certificates or passports as well as photos and license information) is being dumped into an insecure database and indiscriminately shared with other states.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Although Alaska currently exchanges limited information with other states to prevent duplicate or fraudulent licenses, REAL ID will not create a “central national database” where all Alaska DMV personal information will reside.

Sharing is facilitated by our participation in AAMVA, a nationwide tax-exempt organization of 50 state DMVs that serves as a national clearinghouse for vehicle administration, law enforcement, and highway safety. The organization was created in 1933 and has been vetted by the Department of Homeland Security to create a secure “electronic bridge” allowing state to state sharing of information.

The only information contained in AAMVA’s encrypted database is each person’s name, DOB, ADL number, and the last five digits of their SSAN.

This is less information than Alaskans provide to the IRS or Social Security. It’s less information than we provide to the Alaska Division of Elections (which is shared with a national database). Ironically, it is less personal information than many Alaskans voluntarily post on Facebook pages.

It will always be a difficult task to balance the competing goals of our right to privacy and the government’s responsibility to identify and catch bad guys. But the Legislature got it right this time.


• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.


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