REAL ID - US National ID?

U.S. identification cards are getting a new look.

Called the REAL ID, this update to the most common U.S. identity card will help reduce counterfeit and forged IDs to improve security. A result of the 9/11 Commission, the REAL ID Act of 2005 states that, starting on October 1, 2020, all passengers going through security checkpoints at commercial airports in the U.S. must have a REAL ID-compliant license (or passport). If you don’t have it, you can’t fly.

But in addition to causing a frenzy at DMVs across the country, the REAL ID has also created a stir among identity experts who were left asking an important question: Is this an attempt at a national ID program?

IDs And Privacy

The U.S. has no national identification card, which for many means that a driver’s license issued by each state is the standard form of identity. Each U.S. state makes its own rules and standards for driver's licenses and identity cards, including the data contained within them. The barcodes on some U.S. ID cards contain just name and date of birth, while other states’ cards contain much more. Additionally, states issue the cards themselves, and they vary drastically in appearance.

It’s not hard to see how, in a country with over 300 million people, such decentralization and lack of national standards around identity might create significant opportunities for fraud and ID theft. According to Javelin’s 2019 Identity Fraud Study (paywall), 14.4 million Americans were victims of ID theft in 2018. Identification cards have not proven particularly difficult to forge either.

One Standard, Heightened Security

Will the REAL ID help stem these activities? That’s the goal.

As outlined by the Department of Homeland Security, improving security and trustworthiness of state-issued ID is a “key enabler of public and commercial life.” This extends beyond simply improving air travel security. State-issued IDs in the U.S. serve multiple purposes, including the verification of identity, age and address, hence their ubiquitous use as a de facto national ID card.

Despite significant delays in the rollout of the REAL ID Act, states have offered little resistance to implementing it, an indication that REAL ID offers plenty of benefits, security included.

While current identification cards and driver’s licenses lack a unified set of data about the individual, the new ID sets national standards. In addition to being machine-readable and housing security features designed to “prevent tampering, counterfeiting or duplication of the driver’s licenses and identification cards for fraudulent purposes,” REAL IDs must include a 2-D barcode with 10 pieces of information.

A National ID?

If all of this sounds to you like an attempt to establish a national ID, you’re not alone. Countries bigger, smaller and less developed than the U.S. have established national IDs with success, and for good reason: Digital identity frameworks have massive potential to improve security, accessibility, privacy and more.

The Department of Homeland Security makes clear that it has no intention of creating a national ID database: “REAL ID is a national set of standards, not a national identification card. REAL ID does not create a federal database of driver license information.”

Not all privacy and civil liberty advocates agree. The ACLU has listed five problems with national ID cards, calling it a slippery slope to a surveillance state and discrimination. Others have called it “hacker bait,” irresistible to identity thieves. And a 2018 op-ed in the LA Times stated that “Real ID won’t make us safer, it will only divide us.”

No matter where you stand on this issue, it’s clear that the U.S. is taking identity very seriously. What was initially a quick and angry response to 9/11 has become a prescient and incredibly relevant piece of legislation today. Identity theft remains a massive security problem, and nefarious actors are exploiting more sophisticated tools every day to carry out their attacks. It’s become abundantly clear that the current disjointed and complex identification card system is full of holes, and the financial and privacy consequences are enormous.

Will REAL ID Solve These Problems Overnight?

It’s unlikely, and privacy advocates have legitimate concerns. But the nationwide move to pull all residents under a single set of ID standards represents the country’s largest and most visible attempt to take identity seriously.

As this nationwide rollout continues, businesses that leverage ID document verification technologies when onboarding customers will need to contend with an entirely new ID document. Though it won’t look vastly different from previous cards, the data contained within will be more extensive.

To prepare, businesses should look to solutions that incorporate AI and machine learning capabilities to authenticate the latest ID documents, which will reduce failed verification responses when customers attempt to use their REAL ID to open accounts online. For businesses with operations in multiple countries, they need to also ensure identity verification solutions are updated and capable of verifying the latest ID documents types ( including the REAL ID) from every country, state or province they have customers in to streamline and ease the onboarding process for international customers.

As citizens' lives are increasingly lived in the digital realm, moving toward a digital identity framework for the entire country is the next logical step. Enacting and administering such a framework will be a jurisdictional and legal quagmire. However, the real benefits to identity processes, security and privacy outweigh the difficulty in achieving a new identity model.

From speeding up economic activity to putting the brakes on fraud, there are numerous financial benefits to having fully digital identities. Add in the ability for citizens to enjoy more seamless experiences when providing their IDs, and the public will surely appreciate the initiative. The U.S. has always been a technology leader and innovator. Adopting new modern digital identity frameworks will be a big step forward in creating the next generation of advancements.

This article first appeared on Forbes Technology Council.