October 21, 2008 8:21AM

Selling “Security”

Imagine you are an official arriving at a disaster scene. As you approach, to your left is a burning and partially collapsed building. On an upper floor of the standing part of the building, one or two people are waving for help, evidently trapped. In the parking lot on your right are injured people, one or two of them in very dire straights, with a few Samaritans trying to render them aid.

You don't know what caused this, but there are burned out remnants of a truck at the base of the building. It could have been a truck bomb, or it could have been an innocent crash and explosion.

Arriving behind you are firetrucks and ambulances. From the ambulances are coming people wearing white and carrying medical equipment. The people coming out of the firetrucks are carrying gas masks and wearing heavy boots and flame-retardant clothing.

What do you do? Check their IDs?

Heavens, I hope not.

But the Smart Card Alliance is trying to convince the world that disaster response and recovery scenes require machine-readable ID cards. (Their paper is being release just ahead of their big Washington, D.C. conference. See their membership list in the conference brochure.) Here's what they say:

For both daily activities and emergency situations for [emergency response officials], it is necessary to quickly and unequivocally establish who is requesting access and what the ERO is allowed to do based on their certified skill set (e.g., medical personnel, law enforcement officer, firefighter). Without the ability to identify and qualify individuals with a high level of assurance, the response and recovery effort can be compromised, affecting the economic and human impact and the ability to return to life as normal.

On the contrary, disaster scenes are places where we rely on easy symbols like uniforms and equipment to judge who people are and what they are there to do. It is possible to contrive a situation where a wrongdoer or incompetent could access a disaster scene and do more harm, but that is precisely what it is: a contrivance. The overwhelming majority of the time, people dressed as firefighters are firefighters, generally qualified to fight fires. People dressed as Emergency Medical Technicians are almost always EMTs, generally qualified to administer emergency medical care.

Emergency scenes have all the credentialing they need. Checking a digital "smart card" at a disaster scene would be a stupid and life-threatening waste of time.

There are a lot of good things to be done with advanced identification cards and credentials. "Securing" disaster response and recovery does not seem to be one of them. The Smart Card Alliance should move along to use cases where there really are benefits rather than trying to sop up government "homeland security" money.