Let's Solve Our National Identity Crisis

Wednesday Jul 2nd 2008 by Mike Elgan
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Because we don't move forward with a comprehensive, protected ID system, we've instead ended up with a third-rate, insecure system based on social security cards and government agencies collecting data without our knowledge or permission.

This 4th of July is a good time to remember the famous quote by Thomas Jefferson, that "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance." If Jefferson really said that, he may have been paraphrasing a more profound (and wordy) comment by the Irish orator, John Philpot Curran:

"It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt."

In the United States, we have a massive problem with our need for a national ID card, but we're doing nothing to solve the problem. As a result of our "indolence," unfortunately, we are becoming prey to the "active." Let me explain.

In a perfect world, each American citizen would be issued a single tamper-proof ID card associated both with biometric data (fingerprint, vein, iris and/or face) and with a national database that included legal resident or citizen status, criminal record and other information. And because this is a hypothetical perfect world, we could trust the gatekeepers of this system to keep it free from incompetence, hacking, loss, theft or corruption.

Such a system would essentially solve our otherwise intractable illegal immigration crisis, dramatically improve law enforcement, and make a huge dent in identity theft and other forms of fraud. Plus, it would be a handy way to speed airport security, check cashing and other mundane activities.

Some countries around the world are moving quickly to national, biometric ID card systems.

In the United States, however, public opposition to a national identity card is strong -- and stronger still for one associated with biometric data and national databases. Not only are we not moving toward a national biometric ID, we're not even seriously discussing it.

Behind this opposition lies the assumptions that Americans don't need a national ID card or number and also don't trust biometric security. Interestingly, these are easily proved false.

Americans Need National ID

In the absence of a national ID card, companies and other organizations use the Social Security (SS) card, social security number or part of the social security number for identification.

Meanwhile, the counterfeiting of social security cards (a trivial achievement), is the leading form of identity theft in the United States. Because it's the only thing even approaching a national identity number, it's used as authentication by banks and other institutions.

The Federal Trade Commission warns citizens to never carry a card with a visible social security card in their wallets -- and never write the number on checks. Yet according to an AP article published today, the federal Medicare agency and the Defense Department require 52 million Americans to carry cards that clearly display the holder's SS numbers. The Internal Revenue Service tells taxpayers to write their SS numbers on tax payment checks.

The government can't even follow its own advice. The government, private companies and citizens need a national ID system, and we will -- and in fact do -- have one. It's just a very bad one.

Americans Trust Biometric Security

Companies all over the world, including in the United States, are working with airports to provide expedited processing through airport security using biometric ID cards. Not only are travelers accepting it, they're seeking it out and paying for it. So this Orwellian technology everyone fears is suddenly wonderful if it saves 10 minutes at the airport. In fact, hundreds of companies are gathering biometric data as part of a broad range of goods and services that provide security, convenience or both.

Meanwhile, the FBI and other federal government agencies are building a huge database of biometric information -- pretty much whatever they can get their hands on. Not only are they seeking out fingerprint, iris and palm-print data, but also loading the database with photos in anticipation of future applications that can do face identification based on several pictures.

The State Department issues biometric passports. The documents themselves contain RFID chips that may contain retina or fingerprint data.

Has it occurred to anyone that government agencies could simply share the biometric data they have, and purchase biometric data from private companies -- then share them with other agencies, all stored in potentially hackable databases?

Let's review the situation. The American public mistrusts the idea of a national biometric ID card system because we're concerned about fraud and the loss of liberty. And because we don't move forward with a comprehensive, secure, protected system, we're instead ending up with a willy-nilly, third-rate, insecure de facto system based on social security cards and government agencies collecting the data from other sources without our knowledge or permission.

Let me state that even more starkly: It is precisely our opposition to biometric national ID that is giving us the worst possible biometric national ID system, with the most objectionable possible qualities.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but I have a proposal that might help. Why not use biometric data itself for biometric security? What if our greatest minds at MIT and other universities invented a system whereby one set of biometric security would be gathered -- say, face, fingerprints and voice -- and locked away in a very strongly encrypted database that could be unlocked only with another set of biometric security data -- say, iris and vein ID? It could be illegal to capture or store iris and vein data, which could be used only as "biometric passwords."

The idea would be to provide both government and private companies with all the benefits of a national biometric ID system, but that information could be accessed only with the permission of the user.

It's probably a bad idea, and I'm sure somebody will point that out. But I do know that "indolence" is a bad reason to sacrifice our security and liberty. Our national ID system is a mess, and we've got to fix it.

Happy independence day.

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