Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Is a ‘Non-Federal’ License Still a National ID?

The Department of Homeland Security has been pressuring state legislatures to implement our U.S. national ID law, the REAL ID Act. States are free to set their own policies because the DHS will always back down. But many state legislators don’t know that. They’re in a bind where they feel obligated to obey federal mandates, but they want to do right by the citizens of their states. Law-abiding Americans shouldn’t have to scrounge up long-lost identity documents, stand in line at DMVs, and see themselves entered into a national ID system just so they can carry a driver’s license.

So practical legislators are seeking that golden compromise, which the REAL ID Act seems to hold out. But watch your wallet, because a “non-federal” license may still be a national ID.

REAL ID permits the issuance of “non-federal” licenses and IDs. These can be issued without the many stringent, time-consuming, and annoying requirements of REAL ID. Such a card simply has to state clearly on its face that it may not be accepted by federal agencies for official purposes, and it must use unique designs or colors to indicate this.

But REAL ID also requires compliant states to give all other states access to the information contained in their motor vehicle databases. The law requires them to share all the data printed on the REAL ID cards, as well as driver histories, including motor vehicle violations, suspensions, and points on licenses.

That leaves an open question: Does the REAL ID Act require nationwide info-sharing on every licensee? Or just the licensees who carry REAL ID cards?

The question is important, because of the huge data security implications from exposing data about every driver to the motor vehicle bureau of every other state. A good reason to avoid REAL ID is to avoid the risk that a rogue DMV employee in any state can access the data of drivers in all the others. That’s a recipe for mass-scale identity fraud.

Drivers who are worried about identity fraud and their privacy should be able to opt out of this information sharing. While we’re at it, the privacy of security-conscious drivers could be protected if “non-federal” licenses came without the “machine-readable zone” that REAL ID requires. It allows easy collection of driver data and tracking with every swipe or scan of the card in a digital reader.

States should really resist REAL ID entirely. Congress should stop funding it and repeal the unnecessary and burdensome national ID law. But if there are to be “non-federal” IDs from compliant states, it would be nice if they offered Americans a way to opt out of the insecure information-sharing requirements in this national ID system.

What Is Real REAL ID Compliance?

This fall, the Department of Homeland Security and its pro-national ID allies staged a push to move more states toward complying with REAL ID, the U.S. national ID law. The public agitation effort was so successful that passport offices in New Mexico were swamped with people fearing their drivers’ licenses would be invalid for federal purposes. A DHS official had to backtrack on a widely reported January 2016 deadline for state compliance.

DHS continues to imply that all but a few holdout states stand in the way of nationwide REAL ID compliance. The suggestion is that residents of recalcitrant jurisdictions will be hung out to dry soon, when the Transportation Security Administration starts turning away travelers who arrive at its airport checkpoints with IDs from non-compliant states.

Left Hand, Meet Right Hand: The U.S. National ID Bureaucracy

One reason to avoid the creation of a national ID system in the United States is that it would facilitate direct regulation of Americans from Washington, D.C. If you want to see why we should minimize regulation of the states and people from Washington, look no further than the Department of Homeland Security’s administration of of the U.S. national ID program itself.

Congress is at fault for the passage of the REAL ID Act, of course. It didn’t even hold a hearing to assess the merits or difficulties of coercing states into implementing a national ID. But the Department of Homeland Security has made a continuing hash of the national ID program since then.

Passed in May 2005, the REAL ID Act called for states to begin issuing national IDs in three years. DHS took until January 2008—four months before the deadline—to issue final regulations telling states what they were expected to do.

Needless to say, the DHS had to issue deadline extensions, as it has done repeatedly and en masse ever since. When states learned the costs and consequences of producing a national ID, more than half objected or barred themselves from complying. DHS has given every state extensions for the last eight years, whether it wanted to or not, and every state is operating under an extension right now.

Obama Administration Promises a Machine-Readable Federal Government Organization Chart

The Open Government Partnership is an “international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.” Shortly after the OGP’s creation, in my November 2012 study, “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” I gave the OGP unenthusiastic praise. It appeared to substitute meetings about open government with actual forward motion on the government transparency that President Obama promised in his first presidential race.

But an important commitment emerged late last month from the “Third Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America.” The plan includes “a wide range of actions the Administration will take over coming months to strengthen, deepen, and expand upon” U.S. open government efforts. Among them (at the bottom of page 10) is the commitment  to develop a machine-readable government organization chart. 

The lack of a machine-readable government organization chart has been an emphasis of mine in writings and speeches since at least 2012. The Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott cited my quest for one in a favorite article calling me a “digital Diogenes.”

Having access to data that represents the organizational units of government is essential to effective computer-aided oversight and effective internal management. Presently, there is no authoritative list of what entities make up the federal government, much less one that could be used by computers. Differing versions of what the government is appear in different PDF documents scattered around Washington, D.C.’s bureaucracies. Opacity in the organization of government is nothing if not a barrier to outsiders that preserves the power of insiders—at a huge cost in efficiency.

The promise to produce a useful organization chart is not self-delivering, of course, and there are ways that this commitment could go off the rails. But the phrasing of the commitment suggests understanding of what a well-published digital organization chart is.

The General Services Administration and National Archives Office of the Federal Register will “capture agencies’ organizational directories as machine-readable raw data in a consistent format across the U.S. Federal government.” That suggests to me that the relationships among agencies, bureaus, and program offices (to use one nomenclature) will be represented in a consistent manner government-wide. Each sub-unit of government must have a unique identifier that embeds its relationship to its parent, like the identifiers in this document published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 2008. We’re not talking about a flat digital phone book.

It is not clear whether this commitment is a commitment of the Obama Administration to make this the authoritative organization chart. Obviously, an org chart that doesn’t accurately represent and guide the government’s own actions is not much of an org chart. But if the White House (i.e. OMB) and other important actors such as the Treasury Department (which cuts the checks) rely on and use this machine-readable government organization chart, then we will really have something. That will raise the pressure on Congress to make its processes more transparent by referring to agencies and their sub-units in legislative documents using the same identifiers.

I’ll report here on the success or failure of the project. The national action plan does not give a definitive timeline or deadline, but it does speak of action on its commitments in terms of “months.”

Predicting the Return of ‘The Final Frontier’

It’s not often that a regulatory policy analyst correctly predicts a pop culture development a decade out, so…

Back in the spring of 2005, law professor Christopher Yoo (then at Vanderbilt, now at Penn) argued in Regulation that the Federal Communications Commission should liberalize its “structural regulations”—controls on such things as how the broadcast spectrum can be used, cable TV rates, ownership of different media outlets in a geograpic market, etc. He explained that those controls limit the diversity of voices and programming in mass media, making it mainstream-directed, because such programming is most profitable under those rules.

About the time his article appeared, the now-defunct UPN Network announced its cancellation of the series Star Trek: Enterprise, the most recent TV installment of the Star Trek franchise. The reason was low ratings; Trek fans are fervant and typically middle to upper class, but they were not a big enough market segment for UPN and its desired advertisers. However, those characteristics made the fans an ideal market for a paying-subscriber-supported Star Trek—something that Yoo’s reforms would have allowed, but FCC regulations prohibit.

Seeing the news hook, Yoo and I wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Examiner explaining all this and concluding

Hopefully, if the “Star Trek” series gets yet another revival, it will be in a mass communications environment where niche shows have a better chance to live long and prosper.

Unfortunately, the FCC hasn’t adopted the reforms we envisioned (if anything, going in the opposite direction). But human innovation—both in technology and business—often finds ways around government barriers.

This week, the CBS Network announced that a new Star Trek series will launch in January 2017, exclusively on CBS’s Internet-delivered subscriber service All Access. The move will attempt to do exactly what Yoo and I foresaw: tap the Trek fanbase to see if it is a viable market for the show.

It can’t be said that CBS is boldly going where no one has gone before. Cable and satellite services, premium channels like HBO and Starz, and streaming services like Hulu and Netflix have already entered the final frontier of subscriber-supported content, delivering high-quality but niche-audience new programming such as original series Game of Thrones and House of Cards, reboots like Battlestar Galactica, and network-cancelled series like The Mindy Project. They can do this, in part, because they can escape many of the FCC’s diversity-dampening regulations—for now at least. 

Unfortunately, the FCC hovers as menacingly as a Romulan starship, as evidenced by the recently adopted net neutrality regulations. Still, let’s hope that CBS’s new venture lives long and prospers.

They Represent D.C. in New Mexico

In a recent The Hill piece on the REAL ID debate in New Hampshire, I wrote about the complaint against federal legislators who cease representing their states in Washington, D.C., and start representing Washington, D.C., in their states.

That seems to be happening in New Mexico, where four of five members of the congressional delegation are at best standing by worrying about a Department of Homeland Security attack on their state. At worst, they are lobbying the state legislature to cede authority over driver licensing to the federal government.

The DHS is pushing New Mexico toward compliance with REAL ID, the national ID law, by saying that it will not offer another extension of the deadline for compliance. The statutory deadline passed seven years ago and no state is in compliance. No state will be in 2016. The national ID law is as unworkable as it is weak as a security tool.

Technology Takes On the Big Problems

Take a look at how markets and technology are taking on some of society’s biggest problems and revolutionizing the way we live. 

Nanotech and clean drinking water 

The World Economic Forum recently reflected on nanotechnology’s potential to improve people’s lives by providing smaller yet more powerful batteries, and by speeding up the purification process for air and water, among other things. Nanotechnology could deliver clean drinking water to millions of people who currently lack it, furthering the current positive trend. Around 10 percent of the global population lacks clean drinking water, down from around 20 percent in 1990.