ATLANTA - A national identification system due to take effect in 2008 is being developed without adequate safeguards to protect Americans' right to privacy, former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr said Wednesday.
Congress passed the Real ID Act last year aiming to make it easier for authorities to track suspected terrorists and illegal immigrants.
But the new federal standards the law requires for state-issued driver's licenses and ID cards are ripe for abuse by government agencies anxious to gain wider access to citizens' private information, Barr told a Georgia House study committee considering whether state legislation is needed to protect privacy rights.
"The Real ID Act is a typical government overreaction to a problem,'' said Barr, a Republican who represented portions of Atlanta's northern suburbs from 1995 through 2002. "It is proceeding without any real oversight.''
The House Study Committee on Biological Privacy invited Barr, who has been an active defender of privacy rights since leaving Congress, to suggest whether and how the General Assembly should become involved in the issue.
The House created the committee this year amid growing concerns that new technologies are allowing both government agencies and private businesses to gather information about citizens without their knowledge.
Such innovations as DNA profiling, retinal scanning and radio frequency identification, which implants data into ID cards that emit a signal, can be used for many purposes, from determining whether an employee is smoking in the privacy of his or her home to where a consumer shops.
Barr said that, with Congress not doing a good job safeguarding privacy rights, it's going to be up to state legislatures to step in. He said they should do so sooner rather than later because the technology used to gather personal data is advancing quickly.
"These are fundamental public policy issues that ought to be addressed by the legislature,'' he said. "If you don't, in a couple of years, you won't be able to.''
While the House committee considers its options, a Senate Republican already has introduced legislation on Real ID.
A bill pre-filed on Tuesday by Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, would authorize Gov. Sonny Perdue to delay Georgia's compliance with the new law until the federal Department of Homeland Security provides safeguards to ensure the economic and biological privacy of Georgia citizens.
"I believe that the Real ID will be an effective tool in protecting this nation from terrorist activities and illegal immigration,'' Seabaugh said. "But the fact that this mandate lacks the funds and methods to protect the privacy of information or secure the data contained on a national database or in the cards is disturbing to me.''
Barr said officials in New Hampshire were considering not participating in the Real ID system because of similar concerns. But he said they backed off for fear of losing federal aid if they don't cooperate.
"(States) don't seem to have any backbone to stand up to that threat,'' he said.
Barr said the best legislative approach would be to declare what information should remain private and make it off limits to any data collecting entity, whether public or private.
"Entities are going to accumulate, aggregate and utilize information. There's no sense trying to stop it,'' he said. "What you want to do is ... identify those areas that are truly worthy of protecting.''