A federalized ID card plan based on state driver's licenses aims to increase security nationwide, but many fear the opposite at great cost to taxpayers.

The Real ID Act, signed by President Bush in 2005, requires every state to recertify driver's license and identification card holders over a five-year period beginning in May 2008. Recertification calls for an in-person visit to state offices, such as the California Department of Motor Vehicles, with a certified birth certificate, current U.S. Passport, Social Security card and proof of address in hand.

The act was passed by Congress and is supported by the 9-11 Commission and the Department of Homeland Security, said the department's spokesman, Russ Knocke.

"At the end of day, we've seen how state-issued driver licenses are vulnerable — we've been repeatedly exploited by criminals and perpetrators of identity theft," said Knocke, who noted that a number of the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks carried fraudulently obtained driver's licenses.

"While the implementation of Real ID is going to require some burdensome steps and tough decision-making, it's righteous and something that we have to move forward with."

"Burdensome" is a word repeated often by groups against Real ID. They say the plan is too costly, unrealistic and puts private, personal information at greater risk of exploitation.

The nation's sole public meeting on the Real ID plan was held Tuesday at the University of California, Davis, campus. Final details of the plan are expected to be released after August.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles, which hosted Tuesday's meeting at the request of Homeland Security, isn't opposed to the intent of Real ID, but has major concerns about funding, timing, security and privacy.

Implementation of the plan will cost an estimated $23 billion nationwide, and between $500 million and $700 million in California, and neither government has a plan to pay for it.

"It would be very challenging, certainly, because we would be moving an additional 2.5 million people each year, every year, through our field offices," said DMV spokesman Mike Marando. "We're faced with an unrealistic time frame for compliance. We believe there needs to be a more strategic, phased process for Real ID compliance in lieu of the onerous recertification process."

Real ID risks introducing new threats to privacy, argues one consumer advocacy group.

"We're opposed to Real ID — we think it needs to be either overturned or significantly amended," Privacy Rights Clearinghouse spokeswoman Beth Givens said.

A government-strengthened ID card would make it harder for identity theft victims to prove they did not authorize transactions illegally made in their names. And no matter how sophisticated the security features, any ID can be counterfeited to fool merchants and government clerks who aren't experts in detecting a fake, the group argues.

The Real ID Act would require states to scan copies of birth certificates and other private documents that will be stored in a linked national database. Critics say centralizing such information increases the risk of hackers getting it.

"We're not really getting any more security for the invasion of privacy," said Valerie Small Navarro, senior legislative advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union. And it doesn't minimize the chance for another terrorist attack. Just because you give someone an ID, doesn't mean they aren't going to blow up a building."

Small Navarro said much of the public does not know what's at stake with Real ID because it won approval in 2005 as part of a huge bill that included tsunami relief and Iraq war funds.

"If you wanted to hold a real national town hall meeting, you pick 10 major cities and have them there," Small Navarro said. "You don't pick a college campus in rural California and announce the meeting a week before it happens."

Knocke, the Homeland Security spokesman, said the department sought a lot of input from states when crafting the details, and California was a major partner in that.

Reach Malaika Fraley at (925) 945-4782 or at mfraley@cctimes.com.