Editor's note: A May deadline looms as just one flash point in a political showdown between Homeland Security, privacy advocates, and states that oppose Real ID demands. Friday's story follows a four-part series that we published earlier this week.
Every year, about 1,000 domestic violence victims legally change their Social Security numbers in an attempt to elude people who may pose threats, and many more change their legal names, according to figures compiled by advocacy groups.
But hiding from stalkers may become more difficult under a federal law called the Real ID Act that's scheduled to take effect on May 11.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's new regulations mandate specific standards for what personal information states must print on the face of Real ID drivers licenses and encode on their machine-readable zones. Although there's some consideration for people who qualify for special confidentiality treatment, critics argue the protections don't go far enough.
"The statute is troubling because it's trying very much to identify people who are dangerous, such as terrorists, and at the same time, how do you do that in a way that keeps everyday citizens and victims safe?" Cindy Southworth, technology project director for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said of the Real ID Act, which Congress passed nearly three years ago. "I think inherently there's a conundrum there."
Homeland Security did weigh some of the concerns voiced by domestic violence prevention groups, as well as existing laws like the Violence Against Women Act, before issuing its final rules.
Currently, 19 states have confidentiality programs for domestic violence survivors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The agency's final rule appears to preserve that, saying: "A DMV may apply an alternate address on a driver's license or identification card if the individual's address is entitled to be suppressed under state or federal law or suppressed by a court order including an administrative order issued by a state or federal court."
That "alternate address"--which in many cases is a dummy address created by the government that forwards to someone's real address--is also the only address required to be encoded on the two-dimensional bar code. That means that if convenience store clerks or police officers swipe the unencrypted card, they'll in theory only gain access to limited information.
Still, victims-rights and privacy advocates remain concerned about one important Real ID requirement, which dictates that state DMVs interlink their databases and make all their drivers' records and identity documents available.
The final rule says that both an individual's "full legal name" and "true address" must be stored in the DMV database, regardless of what's displayed on the card and encoded on its bar code. It also requires that motor vehicle departments scan and store "source documents," such as birth certificates, to verify a driver's license applicant's identity.
Homeland Security hasn't yet stipulated what information must be exchanged among the state-to-state databases, saying only that it will be "limited," nor has it specified exactly how the database linking will work, leaving lingering worries among privacy and victim advocates.
All it would take is a determined, persuasive stalker--many have tricks, like saying an ex-spouse is suicidal or otherwise in need of help--and a gullible or corrupt DMV employee, and a victim's identity could be divulged, Southworth said.
"Given that there are less than six degrees of separation between most abusers and a friend or relative who works for the DMV, we are concerned about victims' location information housed in state databases that could be searched nationally," Southworth said. "Prior to national search ability, a victim could move to a different state and increase her safety and privacy, but national search functionality could place countless victims at risk."
In response to privacy groups' concerns about DMV employees' access to the databases, Homeland Security opted to require states to devise their own "security plans" for Real ID. That plan is supposed to include, among other things, "procedures to prevent unauthorized access, use, or dissemination of applicant information and images of source documents retained pursuant to the act" and background checks for some, though not all, DMV employees.
The final rule has offered little comfort, however, to some privacy advocates.
"We still have this problem of the backbone of this system, which is that we're creating this nationwide system of databases, all interlinked," said Guilherme Roschke, an Electronic Privacy Information Center fellow who focuses on domestic violence privacy issues. "A breach in one is a breach in all of them."