Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Some Sensible Thoughts on the REAL ID Act

Today I’ll be testifying on the REAL ID Act in a state legislature for the second time in two days. In the morning yesterday, I spoke to the Government Operations Committee of the Utah House of Representatives, along with the Committee’s Chairman Glenn Donnelson (R-North Ogden). His resolution to reject the REAL ID Act was passed unanimously by the committee and sent to the full House.

Mid-day, I flew from Salt Lake City to Boise, Idaho to speak on a panel about REAL ID convened in the capitol building by Representative Phil Hart (R-Athol). Today, Hart’s resolution opposing REAL ID will be heard in the House Transportation and Defense Committee.

Among the people on yesterday’s panel in Boise was Bill Bishop, Director of the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. You might think that a homeland security guy would support REAL ID. He doesn’t. Knowing full well he might be making it harder on himself the next time it comes time to getting grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he laid out his opposition to REAL ID.

Along with his philosophical objections to a national ID, he pointed out its practical weaknesses as a security tool. You can nail down the identity of everyone and you’ll be no better off in preventing something like a terrorist attack. And as soon as you come out with a highly secure, highly valuable ID like the REAL ID, the hackers and forgers will go to work on faking it or corrupting someone in order to get it. It’s a good security practice to diversify your protections rather than creating a single point of failure like the REAL ID Act does. You might make yourself less safe if you rely on a uniform ID system for your security.

What frustrates me about this kind of guy (I say, tongue firmly in cheek) is that I had to study security and risk management for a couple of years before I understood these concepts well enough to put in my book. The Bill Bishops of the world just kinda know it. Not fair.

Summarizing REAL ID’s utility as a national security tool, Bishop said: “I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, I don’t believe in Santa Claus, and I don’t believe in the Lone Ranger. Which means I don’t believe in silver bullets.”

We ought to take advantage of this kind of wisdom, and the obvious benefits of local knowledge - maybe by coming up with some kind of decentralized governmental structure. I don’t know how you would do that. Just putting an idle thought out there.

‘Net Wars — Does It Matter?

In a scintillating previous post about telecom regulation, I gave a brief overview of the “net neutrality” fight. Net neutrality may be a fringe issue, but the politics surrounding it are very heated. And here’s the funny thing: I’m wondering if, from an economic perspective, the fight is of any real importance.

Let’s assume that Congress adopts net neutrality and prohibit the ISPs from charging fees to content providers. The ISPs would instead turn to their subscribers for additional revenue. The fear among net neutrality critics is that the ISPs will jack up rates equally on all users, whether a YouTube devotee or the little old lady who just uses the Internet to check e-mail and read the paper. But I seriously doubt that would happen — instead, the ISPs would likely target their heaviest broadband users with ”premium service” fees in exchange for consistent fast service. (Such differentiation already exists in the cost and quality differences between dial-up and broadband.) So, if I’m right, the YouTube devotee will have to pay extra in order to keep enjoying his favorite website.

Now, suppose Congress doesn’t adopt net neutrality, and the ISPs start mailing invoices to the broadband-intensive Web content providers. The content providers would likely respond by charging subscription fees to their visitors. So, in this scenario as well, the YouTube devotee will have to pay extra in order to keep enjoying his favorite website.

Notice: If I have this figured right, then no matter what Congress does, heavy bandwidth users will ultimately pay for the necessary Internet capacity expansion. The question is, on which bill — the ISP’s or the content provider’s — will the cost actually appear?

From a public policy perspective, there is an accompanying question: Would it be more efficient for that cost to appear on the ISP bill or the content provider’s bill? A priori, I see no reason why one would be more efficient than the other. Hence my wondering if this fight really matters.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t care that Congress may stick its nose into this issue. Politicians don’t have a strong reputation for enhancing efficiency and consumer welfare when they intervene in the marketplace. Indeed, I’d argue that Congress’ interest in net neutrality is prima facie evidence that neutrality would not be efficient or welfare-enhancing. But then, I’m a bit of a cynic.

Boston Tea Party? REAL ID Party!

Our nation has many gentle rivalries. As a northern California native, I have always known that I’m slightly superior to our friends in So Cal. (LA-LA land’s ignorance of our disdain validates it wonderfully, by the way.)

Maine people have a similar feeling toward their neighbors in Massachusetts (even while they root for Boston’s professional sports teams). This is among the things I enjoyed discovering this week as I traveled to the far northeast for some lively discussion of the REAL ID Act.

On a panel I was privileged to join at a community center in Augusta Wednesday night, George Smith, executive director of the Maine Sportsmen’s Alliance, stood to share his opinion of our national ID law and what Maine should do about it. A Norman Rockwell painting come to life, he spoke with all the directness (and accent) of a lifelong Mainer. Summarizing, his message was this: They had their Boston Tea Party. Let’s have a REAL ID Party!

All the spirit and independence that makes me so proud of Americans — without sparing that family rivalry for even a minute!

The result of George’s work — along with the Maine Civil Liberties Union and a bipartisan consensus of the state’s political leaders — was near unanimous passage of a state resolution refusing to implement REAL ID. Maine is now the first state to reject the REAL ID Act, and the tide against the bill is beginning to run. 

(For some equally stirring rhetoric in defense of liberty and against a national ID, here’s New Hampshire Representative Neal Kurk (R-Weare) on the REAL ID Act last year. New Hampshire is one of many states likely to join Maine in rejecting a national ID.)

I have tried to supply the intellectual arguments for rejecting a national ID in my book, Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood. I was pleased to offer Smith and a number of Maine’s political leaders copies of the book. 

Hear That? It’s the Sound of a Nation Constricting

Beginning today, citizens of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda are required to present a passport to enter the United States when arriving by air from any part of the Western Hemisphere.

This new restriction on local international travel is part of the “Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.” Tightening up on travel documentation was a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that Congress passed into law in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

To downplay the consequences of this new travel restriction, a Department of Homeland Security press release points out that over 90 percent of U.S. citizens, 97 percent of Canadians, and just about all Mexicans and Bermudans flying to the United States over the past week arrived with passports. But this means that fully 10 percent of Americans who currently travel overseas this way are going to be at least inconvenienced, and at most dissuaded, from doing so.

It’s hard to quantify what a marginal restriction on travel like this means, but let’s try:

As early as January 1, 2008, the new restriction may apply to citizens entering the U.S. from the Western Hemisphere by land or sea. Air travelers are probably more likely than land or border crossers to have passports so let’s assume that 10 percent of all American border crossers lack passports.

To get a rough idea of what this means, in 1999, there were approximately 300 million roundtrips between the United States and Mexico and the United States and Canada, the vast majority of them same-day trips. Let’s assume 250 million of them were U.S. citizens. If 1% of these trips don’t happen (10% of current non-passport holders) because of the new Western Hemisphere travel restrictions, that’s 2.5 million cross-border trips forgone each year, along with the commerce, goodwill, and freedom those trips would have entalied.

What price freedom? Well, let’s make it 10 bucks. At that price, using these strictly back-of-envelope estimates, WHTI costs $25 million per year (not counting the cost of administration). The net present value of a $25 million annual expenditure is $500 million (at a 5% interest rate). In other words, more than half-a-billion dollars (a low estimate) worth of freedom and commerce goes down the drain starting today.

It would be worth every penny if it improved our national security by a similar margin. Alas, it does not.

The reason why requiring passports at borders provides so very little security boils down to the fact that identity does not reveal intention.

In our daily lives, we use identity to assure ourselves of the bona fides of others - neighbors, coworkers, stores, and restaurants, for example. But terrorists and hardened criminals are not similarly constrained by the social and legal pressures we can bring to bear on our law-abiding neighbors.

You could have perfect knowledge of who everyone is - lock down everyone’s identity with a mandatory cradle-to-grave biometric tracking system - and you would still not prevent crime and terrorism. I have carefully analyzed the utility of identity for security in my book, Identity Crisis.

Terrorists can defeat an identity-based security system either physically or logically. They can enter the country someplace other than a border crossing for example - and the half-billion expendture on WHTI is 100% wasted. A logical evasion of identity-based border security is to enter the country legally, not having participated in terrorism planning or acts before. This was the technique used by al Qaeda with most of the 9/11 terrorists.

Checking passports at the border of the country is what security expert Bruce Schneier correctly calls “security theater.” It may make you feel safer, but it doesn’t make you safer. It does corral law-abiding citizens into the habit of showing ID as they go about their business, and it puts information about law-abiding travelers into government data stores for who-knows-what future use.

With the travel restrictions going into effect today, America does not get safer, just smaller.

Identity Crisis Book Forum Thursday at Cato

On Thursday, the Cato Institute is having a book forum on my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.

Commenting on my presentation of the book will be James Lewis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Jay Stanley from the ACLU.

The REAL ID Act is under siege from state leaders who are bridling at this unfunded surveillance mandate, and legislation was introduced at the end of the 109th Congress to repeal REAL ID. But the immigration debate this year will surely fuel the push for a national ID with the demand for “internal enforcement” of immigration law. Identity Crisis lays the groundwork for all these discussions.

The event is streamed for those not in the area. To register, go here.

The National ID Debate, Part II

“It is the policy of the United States that the Social Security card shall not be used as a national identification card.”

So reads the last line of the Illegal Immigration Enforcement and Social Security Protection Act of 2007. The bill would put an encrypted machine-readable electronic identification strip on each Social Security card, which would enable employers to access an “Employment Eligibility Database” at the Department of Homeland Security. The database would include the citizenship status of every Social Security card holder.

Employers who hired someone without checking this … national Social Security identification card … against the Department of Homeland Security’s database would be punished. (Must remember: “It is the policy of the United States that the Social Security card shall not be used as a national identification card.”) 

So goes the push for “internal enforcement” of immigration law — sure to be an important topic in the immigration debate this year. 

The national ID law that is now in place, the REAL ID Act, is a reaction to the terror attacks of 9/11, and the assumption that knowing who someone is tells us what that person plans to do. 

But the REAL ID Act is in retreat. With states bridling at the burden they’ve been asked to bear in order to implement the act, legislation to repeal REAL ID was introduced late last year, and it is likely to be re-introduced soon.

The next wave of the ID debate will be about immigration.

On Thursday, January 18th, we’ll be having a lunch-time book forum here at Cato on my book, Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood. I will present the book, and I have invited two interesting commentators — skeptics of different parts of my theses — to weigh in. 

Please join us for what I hope will be an interesting discussion of identity issues, and a preview of an important part of the coming immigration debate. 

Register for the book forum here.

‘Net Wars

It’s a politician’s dream:

Congress is about to embark on new policymaking that will make some of America’s largest and wealthiest corporations into big financial winners and others into big losers. Given the money at stake, firms are dispatching lobbyists, armed with perks and campaign contributions, to D.C. to ensure that their clients end up on the good side of the legislation.

Making the dream even more wonderful is that the issue is obscure and complex. Most Americans will be affected, but few Americans will understand the issue and thus be able to hold politicians accountable for bad policymaking.

Welcome to the Net Neutrality fight.

To understand the fight, think of how the Web is increasingly making use of video and audio content, e.g., YouTube’s video streams, Internet radio’s audio streams, even Cato’s webcasts and podcasts. And now, on the technological horizon, is the ability to receive whole movies over the Internet. The flow of all of that data places considerable strain on high-speed Internet service providers (ISPs), who have to maintain and upgrade their portions of the Internet in order to keep the streams moving quickly.

Notice the economic asymmetry that results: content providers benefit from the upgrades, but high-speed ISPs like Comcast and AT&T pay the cost. Such asymmetries open the way for consumer-harming inefficiency and mischief.

The ISPs have responded to this situation by threatening to charge content providers for priority access. That is, a modest, text-driven website like Cato@Liberty, which doesn’t use much bandwidth, would likely go uncharged because it wouldn’t need priority service, but YouTube, with its bandwidth-consuming media streams, would need priority service and thus have to pay fees to the high-speed ISPs.

The content providers would prefer to avoid those fees, of course. They’re asking Congress to prohibit the ISPs’ proposal, and instead mandate “net neutrality” — ISPs giving equal priority to all Internet content, regardless of uneven bandwidth demand.

The New York Times nicely summarizes this fight:

Beyond the debate, the fight over net neutrality is, like most regulatory political battles, a fight over money and competing business models. Companies like Google, Yahoo and many content providers do not want to pay for the kinds of faster Internet service that will enable consumers to more quickly download videos and play games.

There are interesting arguments for both neutrality and non-neutrality. For a good argument for neutrality, read this article [pdf] by Stanford Law School’s Larry Lessig that appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Regulation. Lessig’s Stanford colleague Bruce Owen makes a good argument for non-neutrality in this article [pdf] from the Summer 2005 issue.