South Carolina gets Real ID extension, without actually asking for one

DHS chief gives state more time to comply with law that it doesn't plan to comply with

Looking to defuse another potential test of the federal government's determination to push ahead with its controversial Real ID program, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security today gave South Carolina an extension for complying with the program's requirements — even though the state didn't explicitly request such an extension.

Under compliance rules issued by the DHS in January, today was the last day for states to seek an extension on meeting a set of Real ID requirements that are supposed to be implemented by May 11. South Carolina and Maine were the only states without extensions at the start of the day, according to the DHS Web site. That put their residents at risk of not being able to use their driver's licenses as identification when checking in for air travel or entering federal buildings after May 11.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff granted the extension to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford late in the day, in a letter that was sent in response to an earlier one from Sanford to Chertoff in which the governor reiterated his state's refusal to comply with the Real ID mandates while also asking the DHS not to "needlessly penalize" South Carolina residents.

In a lengthy and blistering section of his letter (download PDF), Sanford cited six specific concerns that he has about the Real ID mandate. They include the program's cost, the expansion of federal powers it entails, and the data privacy and security issues that he said would stem from the creation of a national network of driver's license databases.

But Sanford began the letter by detailing a series of steps that he said South Carolina has taken proactively to make its driver's license processes more secure, including a 2002 system upgrade at the state's Department of Motor Vehicles and a plan to install a facial recognition system to help prevent fraudulent license applications. "In short, we are making the very security upgrades that Real ID calls for and are ahead of many states in doing so," Sanford wrote.

That tack was similar to one used previously by the governors of Montana and New Hampshire, which, like South Carolina, have passed laws prohibiting state officials from complying with the Real ID requirements. And as in the two earlier cases, Chertoff agreed to treat Sanford's letter as both a request for an extension of the deadline and the basis for granting such an extension.

Chertoff defended the Real ID program in his response to Sanford. For example, he said that it wouldn't result in the creation of a national driver's license database and that systems already in place enable law enforcement officials throughout the U.S. to share motor vehicle data. "Those systems have not produced the large-scale data compromises you fear," Chertoff wrote.

But he also noted that the federal government "should be interested in results, not words." And according to Chertoff, the actions taken in South Carolina show that the state "will in fact meet the principal security requirements of Real ID — as a matter of South Carolina's independent judgment, and not as an act of compliance."

Maine Gov. John Baldacci also has sent a letter to Chertoff, in which he expressed hope that his state's residents wouldn't be penalized for Maine's refusal to participate in the Real ID program. The letter, which was dated March 25, noted that Maine had moved "vigorously" to improve the security of its driver's licenses and that its processes substantially meet the Real ID requirements.

However, the Associated Press and other news outlets reported late today that instead of immediately granting Maine a compliance extension, Chertoff is giving the state until 5 p.m. EDT on Wednesday to show that it's making progress toward meeting the Real ID requirements.

The Real ID Act of 2005 was passed as part of a wider effort to combat terrorism. The legislation sets minimum national standards that states must use when issuing driver's licenses and other forms of identification. That includes requiring applicants to show photo IDs; verifying their Social Security numbers; and documenting their birth dates, addresses and proof of citizenship or immigration status.

In addition, the driver's license databases in individual states are all supposed to be linked to provide shared access to the information they contain. Although states aren't specifically required to issue Real ID cards, U.S. citizens would eventually would need such cards to access federal facilities and services and for air travel.

The Real ID plans have provoked a firestorm of protest from critics, including a data privacy committee within the DHS itself. Much of the concern stems from fears that the program would create a de facto national ID system that would be hard to manage and even harder to secure. There are also fears that the Real ID cards eventually could be used for a wide set of purposes, including surveillance of individuals by the federal government.

In Sanford's letter to Chertoff, the South Carolina governor contended that the Real ID program had been "dictated" by the government without any real debate of the issues in Congress. "As a practical matter, this sensitive subject received far less debate than steroid use in baseball," he wrote.

Sanford also criticized the expectation that states would pick up the cost of implementing Real ID themselves, saying that South Carolina would have to spend nearly $116 million to adopt the provisions of the program.

And he noted that central repositories of personal data "have never proven to be great bulwarks in the world of security." Sanford pointed to various IT security mishaps within federal agencies over the past few years, including the massive data breach at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs two years ago.

Craig Stedman contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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