In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, the federal government adopted a plan to create a national, standardized, tamper-proof driver's license system.
It may have sounded like a good idea at first, given that some of the terrorists used fake driver's licenses to board the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. But a simple plan to link up computers among state motor-vehicle centers is expected to take nine years to complete, cost $4 billion to implement, and - oddly enough - could have the unintended effect of making Americans less secure.
Beyond the time and money, it is hard to see how this plan is really going to improve national security.
Even before Congress and President Bush authorized the Real ID Act of 2005, as it is known, security experts doubted its effectiveness. What seems certain is that millions of drivers could face long lines at DMV offices, because Real ID requires state motor-vehicle licensing centers to share databases and go to extraordinary lengths to verify drivers' birth certificates and other personal identifying information. Individuals will share the burden of producing documents to get the new license, making the current trips through the DMV bureaucracy seem like a two-martini happy hour.
While the federal government pegs the cost of linking all of these bureaucracies together at almost $4 billion, state officials think that estimate is low. As for security, knitting together all of the state systems will create a central repository of personal data - making for easy one-stop shopping for identity thieves, with multiple entry points for hackers through each state licensing center.
Even if the data were to be secured without fail, the benefits remain unclear. Will it really be that much harder for determined criminals to get a fake license?
And will the system boost safety? It's possible a terrorist or ID thief armed with a fake version of a supposedly tamper-proof license could gain even greater access to targets.
The safer, less costly and more efficient approach is for the states to tighten their licensing procedures, which many states have already done.
Seventeen states have opposed or called for the repeal of the Real ID rules. But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is telling state officials that they must sign on to Real ID, or residents there could be required to show additional identification such as a passport at airports and federal buildings.