Mar 18 2021

Laundering Federal funding for the national ID database

The latest response to one of our Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests shows the lengths to which the Federal government has gone to obscure its underwriting of the construction of a national ID database.

Supporters of  a national ID database know that there is resistance to exactly that idea. So they try to pretend that there is no such thing.

They can’t credibly claim that the SPEXS database doesn’t exist, so they try to pretend (1) that this isn’t a national database but merely a distributed national network of state drivers license and ID databases (which it could be, but isn’t, since it includes a national “pointer” database with a record of personal information for each drivers’ license or state-issued ID card), (2) that this State-to-State  network isn’t mandated by Federal law (a clearly false claim, since the Federal REAL-ID Act of 2005 requires that to be “compliant”, each state  must “Provide electronic access to all other States to information contained in the motor vehicle database of the State”), and (3) that this network and database are being built by states, not by the Feds.

The problem with this third and last line of rhetorical defense against opposition to the creation of a national ID database is that much of the funding actually is coming from the Federal government. But the Feds have gone to great lengths to obscure their role in funding the creation of the infrastructure for a national ID scheme.

Here’s how it works:

REAL-ID funding is broken up into pieces small enough to hide in the budgets of multiple Federal agencies, parceled out in grants to state and local governments (often bundled into “block grants” with money for other purposes to further conceal its end use), then reassembled  by AAMVA ( as contractor for the states) and passed on to AAMVA’s commercial subcontractor to do the heavy lifting of building the national database.

AAMVA is a nominally nongovernmental entity not subject to FOIA or any public records law, and the AAMVA subcontractor actually building the national database that holds the data sourced from state drivers’ license records has no direct contract with any state government, only with AAMVA. So there’s no transparency for the prime contracts or prime contractors.

To get at the real sources of all this REAL-ID money, we had to work from the the top down, starting with FOIA requests to the Federal agencies that are making grants that are being used for REAL-ID (to the extent we could identify them)

In 2018, we made FOIA requests to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Transportation for records of grants by their components for implementation of the REAL ID Act, including construction and operation of the State to State distributed national data network and the SPEXS national ID database.

The DHS transferred our request to the Federal Emergency Management  Agency (FEMA).

You might have thought that emergency management would consist of preparing for fires, floods, and the like — maybe even epidemics. But apparently FEMA’s role also includes preparing to surveil and track US citizens and residents, even when there is no emergency.

After more than two years of silence from FEMA, we’ve now received an incomplete but “final” response from FEMA consisting of a spreadsheet created from selected fields of a FEMA database of REAL-ID Act grants to state and local governments between 2007 and 2019, during both Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington.

These FEMA grant amounts aren’t the entirety of DHS funding for REAL-ID Act implementation. Unlike some of the other REAL-ID grants we learned about earlier ($48 million in just one year from another DHS program, for example),  these FEMA grants are small. The largest were $300,000 to the state of Michigan for document scanners in drivers license issuance offices in the Detroit area, and $250,000 to the state of Alabama for unspecified “REAL ID technology”.

But what’s notable is that, even though most of this grant money seems likely to have trickled down to the same vendors of ID card printers and information technology, DHS chose not to contract directly with those vendors.

Instead, FEMA channeled the money indirectly to those vendors through state governments to maintain plausible deniability about this being a Federal rather than a state program. And even for the portion of REAL-ID funding attributed within the Federal budget to DHS, and within DHS to FEMA, the money was broken up into tiny fragments to avoid having any single line item for “REAL ID” in the budget of a Federal agency — even one with as little apparent connection to national ID cards and databases as FEMA. The grant categories — the line items in the FEMA budget, none of which mention REAL ID directly — are described in this 78-page directory of FEMA acronyms and abbreviations.)

FEMA deemed its response to our request “final”, although it included only a fraction of “all records pertaining to” each of these grants, as we had requested.  We’re still negotiating with FEMA to receive the grant applications and other records showing what sort of “REAL-ID technology” was to be procured with this money, and from what vendors.

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