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Suspicious license

CONGRESS IS poised to turn driver's licenses into super ID cards, a mistake that could haunt the country for years. The plan is part of the Real ID Act, sponsored by GOP Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. He says the bill would fight terrorism. But it would shackle states with a huge unfunded mandate and do little for safety.

The Real ID Act is a rush job that asks states to add security features to driver's licenses and deny them to immigrants by 2008. Congress estimates the cost as $100 million.

Motor vehicle registries would have to take on the onerous burden of verifying identities.

On a high-tech crime TV show, this might be a five-second computer check. In real life states would face a stunted time frame and a heavy price tag. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates the cost at $500 million to $700 million -- far more than the estimate from Congress.

States would need to create new licenses, confirm the validity of the documents that people use to prove who they are, create databases to store these documents, protect the databases from hackers and unscrupulous employees, continuously update security features to stay ahead of counterfeiters, and have equipment to detect fraudulent licenses.

It's a huge task given the many paper records that have not been entered into computers such as birth certificates.

Worse, the Real ID Act cannot guarantee safety. A super-secure license would not have stopped the 9/11 terrorists because they entered the country legally.

Sensenbrenner's bill would also derail work that is underway. National license standards are already being studied by states and the federal Department of Transportation under the auspices of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The Real ID Act would shut down this collaboration.

The Real ID Act lacks privacy protections, raising concerns that government could use the data for purposes that have nothing to do with national security. Bars and restaurants could buy scanners to verify that customers are old enough to drink, but these scanners could also collect addresses and birth dates, creating a marketing tool.

The Real ID Act has been tacked on to a must-pass spending bill for the Iraq war -- a testament more to Sensenbrenner's influence than what's best for the country. If Americans want a national ID card, they should debate effectiveness, limitations, and costs. In 1997, the Social Security Administration estimated it could spend $5 billion to $10 billion to issue enhanced Social Security cards, even if costs were defrayed by charging a fee.

The House and Senate may pass the bill this week. That would be a security failure.

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