Big Improvement ... Or Big Brother?

(AP / CBS)
The government calls it "Real ID", but critics say it would be a real big step towards "big brother."

The Department of Homeland Security wants to make it a lot tougher for terrorists -- and you -- to get a driver's license, arguing that a driver's license is much more than just a license to drive. It's also used to prove your identity when you're checking in at an airport, renting a car, opening a bank account, or passing a government checkpoint.

New proposed guidelines, issued today, would require every state to include a digital photo, signature, and a bar code on every license. And before getting that license, an applicant would have to show a birth certificate or passport so his/her name could be verified and checked against a government database to ensure the applicant was in the country legally.

The push to tighten security rules for driver's licenses came from the 9/11 Commission, which noted that 13 of the 9/11 hijackers had legal licenses. And in 2005 Congress passed a REAL ID act requiring the federal government to draft uniform licensing rules for the states to follow.

But, privacy advocates say the more personal information that's on your drivers license, the greater your risk of being victimized by identity theft. And they say Real ID could open the door to Orwellian government tracking and profiling of American citizens.

There's even a bigger flap over money. The new licensing programs could take $100 million or more per state to put in place and state governments, not surprisingly, don't want to pay for it. They warn it would mean higher fees and longer lines at your local Department of Motor Vehicles and some state legislatures have already voted not to implement Real ID in their states.

In an effort to quiet howls of protest from the states, DHS now is extending the original May, 2008 deadline for compliance. Those states who can make a case for an extension will have until the end of 2009 to comply. As an added incentive, the federal government is offering to kick in 100 million dollars towards the cost. That won't go very far since the program is expected to cost more than 10 billion dollars before it's completely phased in over the next five to six years.

But, we better get used to the idea of REAL ID. In a post 9/11 world, the government feels it has the high ground in demanding more secure rules for something as common as that piece of plastic you carry in your wallet.

  • Carter Yang

    Carter Yang is a Washington, D.C.-based producer for the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley. He covers aviation and transportation.