ID Standards: the Trans-National Dimension

Here's the 2-page outline of the talk I gave today at the seminar on ID cards and human rights.

Serious human rights issues can arise if foreign adopters of US technologies intend to use them in harmful ways. Even if the US were to adopt an ID requirement that was hedged with sufficient legal safeguards that it did not harm human rights values, the same technologies might be subject to abuse elsewhere. Thus, any US decision to impose ID requirements on visitors will in effect export US data collection requirements to foreign governments. In addition to creating incentives to build domestic ID card regimes where these do not already exist, the creation of a defacto standard will favor particular technologies making it more likely that these are adopted elsewhere.

I do not believe that ID cards are inherently incompatible with democratic values and human rights. Many countries in Europe have national ID systems, and while there have been accounts in which misuse of these government databases figured, it would be very hard to say that data misuse is more common in Europe than, say, in the US–which at present does not have ID cards; if anything I suspect the contrary may be true since Europe is now committed in principle to a system of data protection (even if the practice is somewhat more porous than the principle might suggest).

The debate over ID cards both at home and trans-nationally needs to take careful account of how cards relate to other types of deployed sensors, and how the data collected is stored in databases.

As our ability to collect, store, collate, search and cross-reference data increases both the potential benefits and the potential costs of a national ID regime grow. Among the serious costs is the potential for misuse. This potential is higher in countries that do not have well-developed policies for data protection, and highest in those that lack mechanisms to ensure the protection of human rights generally – or which actively are not interested in human rights. Thus, even if we can design a domestic system that gives us more of the benefits and fewer of the costs, we should also be sensitive to the spillover effects of what we are building.

For example, if the United States (or any other large economy such as the EU) were to start requiring biometric identifiers from foreign visitors, this will set a de facto international standard. Millions of people travel to the US every year. Thus, there will be a strong incentive abroad to conform when possible to US requirements. In the case of ID information, if we are going to require visitors to the US have verifiable records available in order to issue them a temporary ID card, this creates pressure on foreign governments and markets to have that data available in the form we demand. Currently that requirement is satisfied for some visitors by passports; but for many it also requires a visa and the US plans to require increased data from all visitors in the near future.

If the US requires historic biometric data, that creates pressure on foreign countries to integrate that into both new and existing domestic identification regimes in order to make it easier for their citizens to travel to the US. But even if US consular employees or their agents just take a biometric reading at the time of issuing a visa, that has substantial implications for how foreign governments will act domestically.

Second, and as important, whatever system the US adopts creates an industry to serve it. The prices of technologies that meet the US’s requirements drop relative to alternatives because the technology is proven, in use, and may benefit from economies of scale and even a 'halo effect' due to approval by the US. Consequently similar technologies are more likely to be adopted abroad simply because they will tend to appear cost-effective compared to alternatives. (Biometrics would not be the first time the US government has tried to use market power to set defacto standards for new technologies. This is exactly the strategy the government attempted, unsuccessfully with the Clipper chip. The major difference between the scenarios is that Clipper required adoption by the private sector as an initial matter to become a standard; here, as the governments have a monopoly on border control, it can set the standard more or less unilaterally)

Two conclusions flow from this short sketch, one obvious the other maybe less so.

1. Any US decision to adopt a biometric identifier for foreign visitors needs to be evaluated not just in terms of how it may meet whatever domestic US needs we are trying to satisfy, but also against the worst-case uses we can imagine in the hands of repressive regimes.

In particular, one needs to be sensitive to how the information, or more likely the requirement that the information be provided, could be used by repressive governments. An effective biometric system – at present still something of a hope rather than a reality – could be used to deny people employment on political grounds, to track movements and political associations. Combined with other architectures of control it can be used to prevent anonymous online speech, create dossiers of ‘reliability’, and even – in the really wrong hands – round people up. All of these things are possible without a strong ID system, but an ID system, especially one backed by reliable biometrics, makes them easier.

2. There are three reasons why any requirement we impose on visitors to the US substantially increases the chance that similar requirements will form part of a US domestic ID system in fairly short order:

● One of the most difficult – even intractable – issues in designing a domestic ID card system is how to integrate temporary visitors into the system. Collecting large amounts of data at or before the border goes a very long way to solving this problem.
● Just as foreign countries will find the technologies used at the US border to be cheaper and proven, so too with any plan to build a biometrically based domestic infrastructure.
● If the US imposes biometric ID requirements on foreigners, then other governments are certain to retaliate by returning the favor. This creates an incentive for the US to have a domestic infrastructure which makes it easy for US citizens to travel to those countries…and the circle is complete.

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