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Real ID was a real mistake and Congress should scrap it at last

A national database linking all driver’s licenses would effectively impose something alien to our system of civil liberties: a national ID card.

When the time came to renew my driver’s license earlier this year, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles gave me two options. If I submitted an online application along with the $50 renewal fee, a standard license good for five more years would be mailed to me. But if I wanted a security-enhanced driver’s license that would comply with the Real ID Act, I would have to make an appointment and show up at a Registry office in person. The RMV reminded me that as of May 3, 2023, a Real ID would be required in order to fly from a US airport. Even so, I chose the online option. If Real IDs become mandatory at airports next year, I figured, I would just use my passport as identification instead of a driver’s license. But I was pretty sure nothing would become mandatory next spring.

Sure enough, the Department of Homeland Security announced this month that enforcement of the Real ID law would be delayed until May 7, 2025. It wasn’t the first time the deadline was extended; it almost certainly won’t be the last.


Congress passed the Real ID Act in 2005. It was one of a series of reforms recommended by the 9/11 Commission, which recommended that the federal government “set standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses.” The law was originally scheduled to take effect on May 11, 2008, at which point airports were to accept only identification that met the new standards. But that deadline has been pushed back at least seven times. All these years later, only 43 percent of driver’s licenses are Real ID-compliant.

The government claims that COVID-related backlogs made the latest delay necessary, but the real reason the law has been held up for so long is that numerous states, organizations, and activists from both sides of the political aisle have steadily resisted it. There is broad opposition to the creation of an immense national database linking all driver’s licenses, which would effectively impose something alien to our system of civil liberties: a national ID card.


“If fully implemented, the law would facilitate the tracking of data on individuals and bring government into the very center of every citizen’s life,” warns the American Civil Liberties Union. Real ID would make Americans’ personal information available to a vast network of federal, state, and local officials — an irresistible lure to overreaching government snoops, to say nothing of a mother lode for identity thieves. Even worse, the requirement that all driver’s licenses and ID cards have an unencrypted barcode puts that personal information within the grasp of anyone with an electronic scanner.

In authoritarian countries, it is taken for granted that citizens must always have their identification forms with them and that governments have a presumptive right to demand information about any individual at any time. That is not the American way. Here, the presumption is that the national government does not have an automatic claim to personal information and may not track individuals at will without probable cause to suspect wrongdoing.

As a terrorist-catching tool, Real ID has always been useless: Driver’s licenses and identification cards are of no use in fingering terrorists who haven’t already been spotted as threats. But as a vehicle for expanding government intrusiveness and control, Real ID is ideal. “The day would not be far off,” wrote cybersecurity and surveillance expert Jim Harper, a former congressional committee counsel and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, “when a national ID is required for picking up prescriptions, purchasing guns and ammunition, paying by credit card, booking air travel, and reserving hotel stays, to name just a few types of transactions the federal government might regulate.” Again: That may be normal in some societies, but it cuts sharply against the grain in ours.


It has been more than two decades since 9/11. The still-unenforced Real ID Act is almost 18 years old. Those who once believed that the law was needed to prevent air-travel terrorism by rigorously identifying fliers know better now. Real ID is plainly irrelevant to the nation’s security. Enacting the law was a mistake, and it’s time Congress repealed it.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit https://bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.