Another National ID Card?

March 24, 2010

I’ve written before about the “Real ID” legislation, passed by Congress back in 2005, which imposes requirements on the process by which states issue driving licenses, in the interests of greater security; I’ve argued that it is, in fact, an attempt to establish a national ID card indirectly.  As I noted in that earlier post, there have been many problems with its implementation, and the Department of Homeland Security has put off, for at least one year, the December 31, 2009, deadline for compliance.

There is a story at Wired, in the “Threat Level” blog, about another new proposal to introduce a new, high-tech identity document.  The original proposal was made in an OpEd article in the Washington Post, by Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham.  The article contains many sensible suggestions about providing a less cumbersome mechanism for legal immigration, and eventually citizenship, but it also contains a proposal for a new Social Security card, summed up in the following paragraph:

We would require all U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who want jobs to obtain a high-tech, fraud-proof Social Security card. Each card’s unique biometric identifier would be stored only on the card; no government database would house everyone’s information. The cards would not contain any private information, medical information or tracking devices. The card would be a high-tech version of the Social Security card that citizens already have.

There are several interesting things in this proposal.  Calling a new card “high-tech” can be done pretty much at will, and is essentially meaningless — but “fraud proof”?   The Senators unfortunately do not give any hints as to how this worthy goal will be accomplished.  (As has sometimes been said, the problem with making things fool proof is that fools are so ingenious.)  If it means something like “forgery proof”, I am not aware of any document of non-trivial importance that hasn’t, at one time or another, been counterfeited.  The inclusion of a biometric identifier is mentioned as if it were a silver bullet; but there is no reason to suppose that a forgery could not contain a legitimate biometric of its user.  Given the amount of time and money that has been spent for millenia by governments trying to prevent the counterfeiting of their currencies,  I think it is fair to ask for a few more details on this score.

(We should also remember that, as the potential value of a forged document goes up, so does the effort invested in forging it.  When a driver’s license was just documentation of a qualification to drive, forged licenses were not too common.  Now that a license saying the bearer is 21 has external value, most high school students could probably tell you how to get one.)

The senators also say that their proposal would not involve the creation of a central database.  This is almost certainly nonsense.  In the first place, central records of identification credentials are kept for a reason: to prevent my handing you my supporting documents, so that you can go establish an identity in, let’s say, a different locality or state.   The only effective way I know of to guard against substitution of biometric data is to compare what’s on the card to a master copy.  Even if the establishment of an “official” data base could be avoided, there would be de facto data bases created as soon as the documents were in common use.   The Social Security number itself was never intended to be used for any purpose other than record-keeping in the Social Security system.  But it was appropriated as an identification number for credit files, taxes, and many other purposes.  Once again, the more authoritative a single credential is, the more valuable it is to someone with criminal intentions.  And, if one is concerned about privacy, the card itself will be a “tracking device” — does anyone seriously think that these cards would not begin to be used for numerous other purposes?

To paraphrase something Bruce Schneier has said many times, setting up the surveillance apparatus of a police state is not good civic stewardship.

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