My first podcast on ITConversations is with Phil Libin, president of CoreStreet, a company to which I gave an InfoWorld Innovators Award in 2004 for its approach to massively scalable credentials validation. CoreStreet has worked with the U.S. Department of Defense on its Common Access Card program, so Phil has been a ringside observer of what may be the world’s most successful large-scale deployment of smart identity cards.

From that perspective, I invited Phil to comment on the Department of Homeland Security’s recently published guidelines for the more secure state driver’s licenses mandated by the REAL ID act.

Part of the context for our conversation was a letter to the editor I’d written to my local newspaper in response to an editorial that rejected the notion of REAL ID on the grounds that any government initiative toward stronger credentials will necessarily lead to the Orwellian Big Brother. What I’ve always thought, and what Phil Libin thinks too, is that the technologies of digital identity can be tools of empowerment or oppression, depending on how we understand and apply them, and that for that reason we’ve got to understand them properly.

At one point Phil said:

The basics of asymmetric cryptography are fundamental concepts that any member of society who wants to understand how the world works, or could work, needs to understand.

That’s a tall order. And in fact, it’s outside the scope of the current REAL ID proposal which calls for 2D barcodes rather than for smartcard technology. But Phil makes a great argument for why a broad understanding of the basics of cryptography is necessary, and for how as a society we might achieve it. This conversation is one small step toward that goal.