Updates on REAL ID and Increased Information Sharing by Departments of Motor Vehicles

Updates on REAL ID and Increased Information Sharing by Departments of Motor Vehicles

JANUARY 8, 2018

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced that, as of Jan. 22, 2018, airports may begin requiring travelers from certain states to present REAL ID–compliant driver’s licenses. As a reminder, the REAL ID Act requires states to issue driver’s licenses and identification cards that meet specific requirements, in order to be accepted for identification for certain (but not all) official federal purposes. (For more information about the REAL ID Act, see The REAL ID Act: Questions and Answers.)

Although the airport issue is receiving attention, another REAL ID process has begun to unfold: States will have increased access to other states’ motor vehicle databases and are contributing to a central repository of driver’s license information. Immigrants’ rights and privacy advocates have been concerned since REAL ID’s passage that this could undermine the ability of states to maintain confidentiality of driver’s license information. Below is an update on this process and some steps that advocates might take to better understand and challenge it.

Enforcement at Airports

Here’s where things stand on enforcement at airports:

  • To date, DHS has certified 28 states plus the District of Columbia as compliant with REAL ID and has granted 23 states and three territories an extension of time until Oct. 10, 2018 to comply.  Two territories are under review as their requests for an extension of time are evaluated.
  • If DHS has deemed a state to be compliant or has granted a state an extension of time to comply, licenses from these states may continue to be used at airports on and after Jan. 22, 2018.
  • If a state has been deemed noncompliant or its request for an extension of time has been denied, its licenses will not be acceptable as identification at airports, beginning on Jan. 22, 2018.
  • Even in states that have been declared REAL ID–compliant, many drivers continue to have noncompliant licenses. Drivers in those states and in states granted extensions for compliance may continue to use all their licenses to board airplanes until Oct. 1, 2020.  However, it may be risky for undocumented immigrants to present non–REAL ID–compliant licenses at an airport.
  • On Oct. 1, 2020, only licenses that comply with REAL ID will be acceptable as identification at airports.
  • Both before and after Oct. 1, 2020, travelers may use other forms of identification as alternatives to a driver’s license to board an airplane. According to the Transportation Safety Administration, travelers may even be able to board if they don’t have acceptable identification, though they may be subject to “an identity verification process” and additional screening of their person and property.

Information-sharing between State DMVs and the Creation of Centralized Repository of Information

Federal and state agencies as well as for-profit and nonprofit corporations, have been working “under the radar” to implement REAL ID’s information-sharing and database creation system.

The REAL ID Act requires states to “provide electronic access to all other States to information contained in the motor vehicle database of the State.” Each state’s database, at a minimum, must include “all data fields printed on drivers’ licenses and identification cards issued by the State” as well as “motor vehicle drivers’ histories, including motor vehicle violations, suspensions, and points on licenses.”

No provision of the REAL ID regulations governs the establishment or operation of this state-to-state DMV database access system, since no such system existed when the regulations were issued. And no such system is fully in effect to date. Nevertheless, DHS has certified 27 states and the District of Columbia as compliant with the REAL ID Act.

DHS has contracted out the development of this system through “[m]ultiple layers of outsourcing and subcontracting,” with operations that are largely hidden from public view.  The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) and the for-profit company Clerus Solutions are working on systems that lay the foundation for much broader information-sharing and a centralized database.

This process began with the implementation of another REAL ID Act provision, which requires states to “[r]efuse to issue a driver’s license or identification card to a person holding a driver’s license issued by another State without confirmation that the person is terminating or has terminated the driver’s license.”

The hub system that AAMVA and Clerus have developed is called “State to State (S2S) Verification Services” and “State Pointer Exchange Services (SPEXS).“  AAMVA describes S2S as “a means for states to electronically check with all other participating states to determine if the applicant currently holds a driver license or identification card in another state” and SPEXS as the “platform that supports S2S.”

DHS’s outsourcing of the development of this system is occurring, for the most part, in secret. As soon as the Identity Project obtained documents about SPEXS and S2S from the AAMVA website, AAMVA hid them behind a log-in firewall.

AAMVA describes S2S as a “pointer” system, which simply allows states to communicate with each other through third party technology. But S2S, by AAMVA’s own admission, already holds information from state driver’s license databases, such as name, date of birth, license number, and the last five digits of a person’s Social Security number (SSN). This is in fact a centralized database.

In addition, S2S’s and SPEXS’s fields can be expanded easily. AAMVA also clearly anticipates S2S’s expansion for use beyond determination of whether an individual has a license in another state. According to AAMVA, S2S will also “[p]rovide information on all state issued DL/ID’s nationwide.”

AAMVA indicates that 14 states currently participate in S2S.

Given the secrecy surrounding the development of the information-sharing system, it is important for advocates to act before the system is fully in place. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Try to obtain information about your state’s participation in SPEXS and S2S from your own state motor vehicle administrators.
  • Ask your state DMV about how it will limit broader sharing of DMV information beyond whether an individual has a license or ID in another state.
  • Investigate how your state can limit the kind of information that is provided to SPEXS and S2s and also how it can limit access by other states to only certain DMV records.

Joan Friedland is a NILC consultant and the primary author of our report “Untangling the Immigration Enforcement Web: Basic Information for Advocates about Databases and Information-Sharing Among Federal, State, and Local Agencies.” She formerly was a managing attorney at NILC.