It was good of Ari Schwartz to respond last week to my recent post querying whether the Center for Democracy and Technology outright opposes a national ID or simply "does not support" one.
Ari says CDT does oppose a national ID, and I believe that he honestly believes that. But it's worth taking a look at whether the group's actions are consistent with opposition to a national ID. I believe CDT's actions -- most recently its support of the PASS ID Act -- support the creation of a national ID.
(The title of his post and some of his commentary suggest I have engaged in rhetorical excess and mischaracterized his views. Please do judge for yourself whether I'm being shrill or unfair, which is not my intention.)
First I want to address an unusual claim of Ari's -- that we already have a national ID system. If that is true, his support for PASS ID is more sensible because it is an opportunity to inject federal privacy protections into the existing system (putting aside whether it is a federal responsibility to manage a state system or systems).
Do We Already Have a National ID?
I have heard a few people suggest that we have a national ID in the form of the Social Security Number. I believe the SSN is a national identifier, but it fails the test of a national identification card or system because it is not used for identification. As we know well from the scourge of identity fraud, there is no definitive way to tie an SSN to a person. The SSN is not used for identification (at least not reliably and not alone), which is the third part of my national ID definition. (Senator Schumer might like the SSN to form the basis of a national ID system, of course.)
But Ari says something different. He does not claim any definition of "national ID" or "national ID system." Instead, he appeals to the authority of a 2003 report from a National Academy of Sciences group entitled "Who Goes There?: Authentication Through the Lens of Privacy." That report indeed says, "State-issued driver's licenses are a de facto nationwide identity system" -- on the second-to-last substantive page of its second-to-last substantive chapter
But this is a highly selective use of quotation. The year before, that same group issued a report called "IDs -- Not That Easy: Questions About Nationwide Identity Systems." From the beginning and throughout, that report discussed the many issues around proposals to create a "nationwide" identity system. If the NAS panel had already concluded that we have a national ID system, it would not have issued an entire report critiquing that prospect. It would have discussed the existing one as such. Ari's one quote doesn't do much to support the notion that we already have a national ID.
What's more, CDT's own public comments on the proposed REAL ID Act regulations in May 2007 said that its data-intensive "one person -- one license/ID card -- one record" policy would "create a national identification system."
If a national ID system already existed, the new policy wouldn't create one. This is another authority at odds with the idea that we have a national ID system already.
Support of PASS ID might be forgiven if we had a national ID system and if PASS ID would improve it. But the claim we already have one is weak.
"Political Reality" and Its Manufacture
But the heart of Ari's claim is that supporting PASS ID reflects good judgment in light of political reality.
Despite the fact that there are no federal politicians, no governors and no appointed officials from any party publicly supporting repeal of REAL ID today, CDT still says that repeal is an acceptable option. However, PASS ID would get to the same outcome, or better, in practice and has the added benefit of actually being a political possibility. . . . I realize that Harper has invested a lot of time fighting for the word "repeal," but at some point we have to look at the political reality.
A "Dear Colleague" letter inviting support for a bill to repeal REAL ID circulated on the Hill last week. How many legislators will hesitate to sign on to the bill because they have heard that the PASS ID Act, and not repeal of REAL ID, is CDT's preferred way forward?
The phrase "political reality" is more often used by advocates to craft the political reality they prefer than to describe anything truly real. Like the observer effect in experimental research, statements about "political reality" change political reality. Convince enough people that a thing is "political reality" and the sought-after political reality becomes, simply, reality.
I wrote here before about how the National Governors Association, sensing profit, has worked diligently to make REAL ID a "political reality." And it has certainly made some headway (though not enough). In the last Congress, the only legislation aimed at resolving the REAL ID impasse were bills to repeal REAL ID. Since then, the political reality is that Barack Obama was elected president and an administration far less friendly to a national ID took office. Democrats -- who are on average less friendly to a national ID -- made gains in both the House and Senate.
But how are political realities crafted? It has often been described as trying to get people on a bus. To pass a bill, you change it to get more people on the bus than get off.
The REAL ID bus was missing some important riders. It had security hawks, the Department of Homeland Security, anti-immigrant groups, DMV bureaucrats, public safety advocates, and the Bush Administration. But it didn't have: state legislators and governors, privacy and civil liberties groups, and certain religious communities, among others.
PASS ID is for the most part an effort to bring on state legislators and governors. The NGA is hoping to broker the sale of state power to the federal government, locking in its own institutional role as a supplicant in Washington, D.C. for state political leaders.
But look who else was hanging around the bus station looking for rides! -- CDT, the nominal civil liberties group. Alone it jumped on the bus, communicating to others less familiar with the issues that PASS ID represented a good way forward.
Happily, few have taken this signal. The authors of PASS ID were unable to escape the name "REAL ID," which is a far more powerful beacon flashing national ID and all the ills that entails than CDT's signal to the contrary.
This is not the first time that CDT's penchant for compromise has assisted the national ID effort, though.
Compromising Toward National ID
The current push for a national ID has a short history that I summarized three years ago in a righteously titled post on the TechLiberationFront blog: "The Markle Foundation: Font of Evil II."
Briefly, in December 2003, a group called the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age recommended "both near-term measures and a longer-term research agenda to increase the reliability of identification while protecting privacy.” (Never mind that false identification was not a modus operandi of the 9/11 attacks.)
The 9/11 Commission, citing Markle, found that “[t]he federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as drivers licenses.” In December 2004, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, including national standards for drivers’ licenses and identification cards, the national ID system recommended by the Markle Task Force. And in May 2005, Congress passed a strengthened national ID system in the REAL ID Act.
An earlier post, "The Markle Foundation: Font of Evil," has more -- and the text of a PoliTech debate between myself and Stewart Baker. Security hawk Baker was a participant in the Markle Foundation group, as was national ID advocate Amitai Etzioni. So was the Center for Democracy and Technology's Jim Dempsey.
I had many reservations about the Markle Foundation Task Force and its work product, and in an April 2005 meeting of the DHS Privacy Committee, I asked Dempsey about what qualified people to serve on that task force, whether people were invited, and what might exclude them. A month before REAL ID passed, he said:
I think the Markle Task Force at least sought balance. And people came to the table committed to dialogue. And those who came with a particular point of view, I think, were all committed to listening. And I think people's minds were changed. . . . What we were committed to in the Markle Task Force was changing our minds and trying to find a common ground and to try to understand each other. And we spent the time at it. And that, I think, is reflected in the product of the task force.
There isn't a nicer, more genuine person working in public policy than Jim Dempsey. He is the consummate honest broker, and this statement of his intentions for the Markle Foundation I believe to be characteristically truthful and earnest.
But consider the possibility that others participating on the Markle Foundation Task Force did not share Jim's predilection for honest dialogue and compromise. It is even possible that they mouthed these ideals while working intently to advance their goals, including creation of a national ID.
Stewart Baker, who I personally like, is canny and wily, and he wants to win. I see no evidence that Amitai Etzioni changed his mind about having a national ID when he authored the recommendation in the Markle report that ultimately produced REAL ID.
Other Markle participants I have talked to were unaware of what the report said about identity-based security, national identity standards, or a national ID. They don't even know (or didn't at the time) that lending your name to a report also lends it your credibility. Whatever privacy or civil liberties advocates were involved with the Markle Task Force got rolled -- big-time -- by the pro-national-ID team.
CDT is a sophisticated Washington, D.C. operation. It is supposed to understand these dynamics. I can't give it the pass that outsiders to Washington might get. By committing to compromise rather than any principle, and by lending its name to the Markle Foundation Task Force report, CDT gave credibility to a bad idea -- the creation of a national ID.
CDT helped produce the REAL ID Act, which has taken years of struggle to beat back. And now they are at it again with "pragmatic" support for PASS ID.
CDT has been consistently compromising on national ID issues while proponents of a national ID have been doggedly and persistently pursuing their interests. This is not the behavior of a civil liberties organization. It's why I asked in the post that precipitated this debate whether there is anything that would cause CDT to push back from the table and say No.
Despite words to the contrary, I don't see evidence that CDT opposes having a national ID. It certainly works around the edges to improve privacy in the context of having a national ID -- reducing the wetness of the water, as it were -- but at key junctures, CDT's actions have tended to support having a U.S. national ID. I remain open to seeing contrary evidence.