Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Missouri Joining the REAL ID Rebellion

The Missouri House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Thursday to reject the REAL ID Act.

Representative Jim Guest (R- King City) is quoted in the Carthage Press saying,  ‘‘We must not lose what this nation was founded upon.  The Real ID Act is a direct frontal assault on our freedoms.’’

The bill now goes to the Senate.

Google Does a Good Thing

I have written here a couple of times about concerns with Google’s data retention practices in light of its susceptibility for use in government surveillance. 

Happily, a couple of Google lawyers have announced on the Google blog that the company will be making the data from their server logs “much more anonymous, so that it can no longer be identified with individual users, after 18-24 months.” That’s a big, important change, as Google’s privacy policy has never before pledged to destroy or anonymize data about all of our searches.

Now, there are some interesting details - details that are highlighted by the text I quoted above. “Anonymous” is correctly regarded as an absolute condition. Like pregnancy, anonymity is either there or it’s not. Modifying the word with a relative adjective like “more” is a curious use of language.

Google has a challenge, if they’re going to anonymize data and not destroy it, to make sure that a person’s identity and behavior cannot be reconstructed from it. As AOL’s fiasco with releasing “anonymized” search data showed, clipping off the obvious identifiers won’t do it. As data mining capabilities advance, anonymizing techniques will have to keep ahead of that.

There are interesting things that can be done to synthesize data, making it statistically relevant while factually incoherent. Hopefully, Google will sic some of its finest famously-smarty-pants engineers on the task of making their anonymous data really, really anonymous.

(Cross-posted from TechLiberationFront)

The Smart Card Alliance Thinks Privacy Is Bunk

A spokesman for the Smart Card Alliance says:

Privacy concerns are all perception and hype and no substance but carry considerable weight with state legislators because no one wants to be accused of being soft on privacy.

That’s Randy Vanderhoof, the Smart Card Alliance’s executive director, quoted in a Federal Computer Week article on the collapsing REAL ID Act/national ID plan.  He was speaking of Congressman Tom Allen’s (D-ME) bill to restore the 9/11 Commission-inspired ID provisions of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

Mr. Vanderhoof and the Smart Card Alliance couldn’t appear more dismissive, ignorant, and unserious about issues that are a core problem preventing uptake of its products.

Idaho Joins the REAL ID Rebellion

Yesterday, the Idaho Senate passed Joint Memorial 3, earlier approved unanimously by the House, to refuse implementation of the REAL ID Act.  More info here

I testified on the bill in the Idaho House’s Transportation and Defense Committee, and participated in a panel discussion at the Idaho statehouse, where some common sense was heard.

Let the Sun Shine In

Everyone believes that government would be better if there was more transparency — though people’s ideas of “better” can range quite widely. As I’ve noted before, the Internet and other new technologies have a lot to do with making government information more available.

Apropos of this phenomenon — and the impending advent of spring — next week turns out to be “Sunshine Week,” which includes a wide variety of open government activities. Among other things, the Sunlight Foundation, sponsor of the Sunlight Network, is having a panel discussion called “Sunshine in the First Branch: How Transparent is Congress?

Oh sure, this kind of thing is a little kumbaya, but I’ve been known to hum a few bars of that tune and, again, the benefits of transparency are a matter of (near) pan-ideological agreement. Secrecy is also bad. Let the sun shine in.

USA Today Goes 0-5 on REAL ID

This morning the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Public Liaison was good enough to email me a copy of USA Today’s editorial supporting the REAL ID Act.  Curiously absent from the email was a copy of, or even a link to, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero’s opposing view.

It has been called unwise to argue with someone who buys ink by the ton, but USA Today’s praiseworthy adoption of “Web 2.0” interactivity on its Web site shows how ink is shrinking in relevance.  So let’s go ahead and see how the paper did in its point-by-point assessment of REAL ID.  Below, USA Today’s points are in bold.  My commentary in roman text:

Taking the arguments of Real ID opponents one at a time:

•It won’t make the nation safer. True, there’s no guarantee that the law would have stopped the 9/11 hijackers and that determined terrorists won’t find a way around the new requirements. Averting terror attacks, however, requires layers of security. Credible IDs are an important layer.

To be more clear, the law would not have stopped the 9/11 hijackers.  All of the 9/11 attackers could have gotten driver’s licenses legally had the REAL ID Act been the law on September 11, 2001.  Identification really doesn’t provide any security against committed threats.

“Layered security” is a legitimate way of thinking about things.  One shouldn’t rely on a single security system, because that creates a single point of failure.  However, security layering doesn’t end the inquiry.  Each layer must provide security that is cost-justified.  If creating a national ID doesn’t create a substantial protection - and it doesn’t - the national ID layer does more harm than good.  Speaking of cost …

•It costs too much. Motorists will have to spend an estimated $20 more, a relatively small sum for a standardized, tamper-proof license. For states, the costs are estimated at up to $14.6 billion over five years, offset by as much as $100 million in federal grants this year alone, on top of $40 million in federal aid already provided. Governors can make a case for more help, but cost-sharing arguments shouldn’t stop the program from going forward.

DHS’s own cost estimate is that REAL ID costs over $17 billion dollars.  That’s about $50 per man, woman, and child in the United States.  State government officials are probably not enthused to know that DHS is making available less than 1 percent of the costs to implement REAL ID.

•It violates privacy. The creation of large databases always is reason to be wary. But the new regulations don’t create a national ID card or giant Big Brother-like federal database. States will still issue the licenses and retain information used to verify identity. Making an existing database more credible threatens privacy far less than many private sector data collections do.

To most people, a nationally standardized, government-issued card that is effectively mandatory to carry is a national ID card.

No database, huh?  Here’s section 202(d) of the Act:

To meet the requirements of this section, a State shall adopt the following practices in the issuance of drivers’ licenses and identification cards: …

(12) Provide electronic access to all other States to information contained in the motor vehicle database of the State. 

(13) Maintain a State motor vehicle database that contains, at a minimum–

(A) all data fields printed on drivers’ licenses and identification cards issued by the State; and

(B) motor vehicle drivers’ histories, including motor vehicle violations, suspensions, and points on licenses.

As to private sector data collections, these, at least, people can prevent.  But if the private sector is wrong to do this, two wrongs don’t make a right.

It forces illegal immigrants to drive without licenses or insurance. Illegal immigrants won’t be able to get Real ID licenses, but states will be allowed to issue permits allowing them to drive and obtain insurance. In any event, the nation’s immigration problems require a comprehensive solution in Washington; they can’t be solved at state motor vehicle departments.

When the state of New Mexico de-linked driver licensing and immigration status, uninsured vehicle rates in the state dropped from 33 percent to 17 percent.  Unlicensed driving, hit-and-run accidents, and insurance rates probably followed a similar course.  It’s true that states will be allowed to issue non-federally-compliant IDs, including to illegal immigrants.  Knowing that such cards are “for illegals,” illegals are unlikely to get them.  Thanks to REAL ID, these drivers will kill innocent law-abiding Americans on the highways.

It’s too hasty. This is just absurd. DHS gave states until the end of 2009 to have programs in place to replace all licenses by 2013 — a sluggish 12 years after the 9/11 attacks.

Each day that driver’s licenses lack credibility is a day of needless vulnerability. As DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress last month, “If we don’t get it done now, someone’s going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 Commission why we didn’t do it.”

Few have made the argument that REAL ID is “too hasty.”  The Department of Homeland Security’s regulations didn’t make the law workable and neither can a delay.  The real problem is the law itself, and it needs to be repealed.

Careful observers noted the contrast between Secretary Chertoff’s urgency when speaking to Congress about REAL ID and his Department’s willingness to kick implementation down the road another year and a half, to December 2009.  Cards wouldn’t even be in everyone’s hands until 2013.  This puts the lie to the idea that a national ID is a security tool at all.

USA Today’s editorial page has been rather good on privacy issues in the past, and willing to call out government hypocrisy.  They took a winger on this one and got it wrong.

A Look Over the Horizon? Look All Around!

You don’t have to look far over the horizon to know what life in America would be like if we had a national ID.  On Saturday, the Associated Press reported that a mall in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin is considering requiring ID from youths before they can enter.  This is private ordering, of course, but private ordering doesn’t happen in a bubble.  Private actors will be much more likely to check IDs if there is a nationally uniform ID system.

With IDs and credentials of different designs and from different issuers in our hands today, ID checking is relatively rare, and rarely automated.  Nonetheless, companies like Intelli-Check are pushing electronic ID-checking systems for nanny-state purposes. They would have a much easier time if all of us carried the same card and it was effectively mandatory.  Keep in mind that more ID checking equals more personal data collection.

In tiny Earlville, Illinois, a woman named Joy Robinson-Van Gilder has started a one-woman crusade against her local public school which decided to use fingerprint biometrics to administer the purchase of hot lunches in the cafeteria.  Despite her wishes, they fingerprint-scanned her 7-year-old, for a time refusing to allow him hot lunches if he wouldn’t use their system. 

The starting point for this kind of program is using it to manage lunch payments, but the ending point is a detailed record of each child’s eating habits and the school usurping the role of parents.  It’s no wonder government schools are at the center of so much social conflict.

There is nothing inherently wrong with identification or with biometrics but, unless they are adopted through voluntary choice, they will be designed to serve institutions and not people.