February 14, 2005 4:00 AM PST

National ID cards on the way?

A recent vote in Congress endorsing standardized, electronically readable driver's licenses has raised fears about whether the proposal would usher in what amounts to a national ID card.

In a vote that largely divided along party lines, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a Republican-backed measure that would compel states to design their driver's licenses by 2008 to comply with federal antiterrorist standards. Federal employees would reject licenses or identity cards that don't comply, which could curb Americans' access to everything from airplanes to national parks and some courthouses.

The congressional maneuvering takes place as governments are growing more interested in implanting technology in ID cards to make them smarter and more secure. The U.S. State Department soon will begin issuing passports with radio frequency identification, or RFID, chips embedded in them, and Virginia may become the first state to glue RFID tags into all its driver's licenses.

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What's new:
A recent vote in Congress endorsing standardized, electronically readable driver's licenses has raised fears about whether the proposal would usher in what amounts to a national ID card.

Bottom line:
Proponents of the Real ID Act say it's needed to frustrate both terrorists and illegal immigrants. Critics say it imposes more requirements for identity documents on states, and gives the Department of Homeland Security carte blanche to do nearly anything else "to protect the national security interests of the United States."

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"Supporters claim it is not a national ID because it is voluntary," Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, one of the eight Republicans to object to the measure, said during the floor debate this week. "However, any state that opts out will automatically make nonpersons out of its citizens. They will not be able to fly or to take a train."

Paul warned that the legislation, called the Real ID Act, gives unfettered authority to the Department of Homeland Security to design state ID cards and driver's licenses. Among the possibilities: biometric information such as retinal scans, fingerprints, DNA data and RFID tracking technology.

Proponents of the Real ID Act say it adheres to the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and is needed to frustrate both terrorists and illegal immigrants. Only a portion of the legislation regulates ID cards; the rest deals with immigration law and asylum requests. "American citizens have the right to know who is in their country, that people are who they say they are, and that the name on the driver's license is the real holder's name, not some alias," F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., said last week.

"If these commonsense reforms had been in place in 2001, they would have hindered the efforts of the 9/11 terrorists, and they will go a long

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