National ID Forum Underway

MIT’s online forum on the Real ID Act is underway. In an attempt to stir a little controversy, I just posted the following under the title ‘Consensus and Controversy’, which I reprint here for those not following along. While you’re welcome to comment here too, I urge those interested to Join the Real ID forum discussion.

Here are a few propositions that I think might form a basis for
going forward in reasoned debate.  (I of course welcome debate on
the accuracy of these propositions as well as the conclusions that
might flow from them)

Base propositions:

1.  A national ID is not the magic bullet that will make the
country safe from terrorism.   Given the very poor controls
we have on birth certificates at home (not to mention the impossibility
of relying on the quality control foreign credentials) it at most it
creates a speedbump for foreign terrorists who will need to get phony
versions of the credentials used as the basis for issuing the US ID.

2.  A national ID system cannot secure our borders.

3.  A national ID system can, however, assist in making illegal
immigration more unpleasant for immigrants by, for example, making it
more difficult to employ them.   All other things being
equal, this should reduce the incentive for that part of illegal
immigration driven primarily by economic considerations.

4. More generally, a national ID system has some substantial
potential to be the cornerstone of a national fraud-prevention

5. A national ID system potentially creates new avenues for super-fraud and highly effective identity theft.

6. A national ID system potentially creates new avenues for
governmental dossier creation on all citizens who use the national
ID.  These opportunities exist even if the system is not misused,
and are greater if it is misused.  As Lee Tien put it“‘national ID’ is not a card, but an entire system of databases, information gathering activities, and human beings making fateful
judgments about individuals based on that overall system.”

7.  A National Research Council report (“Who Goes There —
Authentication Through the Lens of Privacy”) noted

Finding 6.5: State-issued driver’s licenses are
a de facto nationwide identity system. They are widely accepted for
transactions that require a  form of government-issued photo

Real ID substantially increases the likelihood
that driver’s licenses will become a defacto national ID for an even
greater range of offline and online transactions.

8.  The extent to which we reap the costs and benefits listed
above is very sensitive to how the system is actually
implemented.   For example, a well-implemented biometric
identifier makes fraud and identity theft more difficult, but also
makes it more devastating when it happens since people become more
reliant on the ID’s security (and it is hard to grow a new retina).

Am I correct that the above propositions are (in the abstract)
uncontroversial, and the controversy is in fact about how big and how
likely the positive and negative effects are, and how they compare to
each other?

Or, as Dan Combs put it in his contribution,

1. REAlID done right = good

2. RealID done wrong = very bad

3. The bar is high for such a system to be good.

        We aren’t close yet!

I will add the following personal observations, which I suspect might be more controversial than the above:

I.  For any ID system to be implemented competently (let alone in a fashion that inspires trust) supervisory authority must be taken out of the hapless Department of Homeland Security.

II.  For Real ID to be implemented competently it must have
federal funding rather than being left to the states as an unfunded

III.  Real ID driver’s licenses are likely to become a de facto
national ID — much more than current driver’s licenses — not just
because of the federal pressure driven by national security needs (or
rhetoric) but also because of commercial pressure from a variety of

IV. The ID must be transparent — end users must be able to read everything coded on the ID itself. 

V.  If we are going to have a real or de facto national ID
card, all citizens must have a right to review and correct information
held on them in both public and private dossiers linked to the ID.

(For more about what I think, see my paper, The Uneasy Case for National ID Cards.)

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3 Responses to National ID Forum Underway

  1. You say, “A national ID system potentially creates new avenues for governmental dossier creation on all citizens who use the national ID.”

    You should strike the word “governmental” from this sentence.

    Commercial, non-governmental entities routinely use and require government-issued credentials and government-assigned unique identifiers (drivers licenses, Social Security account numbers, etc.) for dossier creation and transaction data aggregation.

    A critical limitation of many putative privacy protection schemes for government ID and credentialling (including the Privacy Act), is that they only regulate *government* dossier creation.

  2. mike says:

    I think that #8 is the most important. It’s always possible to get a new password, not so easy to grow new (and different) body parts.



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