Yesterday my local newspaper ran an editorial entitled Death to Real ID. That link will turn into a pumpkin in five days, but here’s the intro:
Although the Bush administration today is announcing possible delays in the Real ID program, it’s beginning to look as if New Hampshire could play a role in killing the thing outright. That would be a welcome development.
Real ID, passed by Congress in 2005, is designed to turn state drivers licenses into “electronically readable” national identity cards. As the law now stands, beginning on May 11, 2008, Americans will be required to show the cards before they board airplanes, open bank accounts, collect Social Security payments or receive almost any other government service.
And of course it won’t be long before every huckster and propane salesman in the country will be demanding to examine your Real ID card along with your Social Security number before doing business with you.
Now I rather enjoy New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” state motto, and I’m not an uncritical supporter of Real ID, but in the US as a whole, and in New Hampshire in particular, it’s hard to even have a discussion about digital identity and I think that’s a shame.
My letter to the editor, below, does not argue for Real ID. It’s just an effort to avoid foreclosing all discussion on the subject of digital identity. Is it effective? What other arguments would help?
To the editor:
At a moment in history when the President of the United States is asserting that the government has the right to intercept phone calls and emails without a warrant, it’s a good idea to raise the totalitarianism alert level from orange to red. But Real ID isn’t a black and white, or green and red, issue. The Sentinel’s March 1 red flag (“Death to Real ID”) fails to address, or even acknowledge, the complex and evolving story of digital identity.
Real ID, we’re told, “is designed to turn state drivers licenses into ‘electronically readable’ national identity cards” that we’re required to show before boarding planes or accessing bank accounts.
Today, by contrast, our drivers licenses are electronically unreadable national identity cards that we’re required to show in all the same circumstances.
That’s better how?
It’s fascinating to compare our national stance on identity cards, epitomized by New Hampshire’s state motto, with that of other countries. Last fall, at the 40th International Council for Information Technology in Government Administration, I met the guy who runs Belgium’s national ID card program. Belgians are receiving these cards at the rate of 10,000 a month, and will all have them by 2009.
There’s also a youth version of the eID. When Belgian children turn 12, they’ll receive a smartcard and a reader from the government. Americans would regard this program as an Orwellian intrusion. For Belgians, it’s a way to help protect kids without compromising their privacy.
One of the first uses of the youth eIDs will be to prove age to age-restricted web sites. There’s no technical requirement to disclose identity, and a strong cultural preference not to. Kids will need only prove (by knowing the card’s PIN) that they are citizens, and prove (by selectively disclosing their birth date) that they meet the age requirement.
Selective disclosure is one of the privacy-enhancing features that electronic ID cards, unlike regular cards, can offer. When you show your drivers license at the liquor store, for example, all the clerk really needs to know is your birth date. An electronic card can be configured to disclose only that fact, and none of your other personal information.
Phil Windley, who was CIO of Utah and is the author of a leading book on the subject of digital identity, said this in an interview with me last year:
“If you talk to people from a number of countries in Europe, they would just laugh at the idea that we don’t have a national ID. But they would be scared to death of the fact that we don’t have strong privacy laws.”
The issues surrounding digital identity are complex and subtle, but they’re not going away. When the Sentinel reduces those issues to “totalitarianism” and “police-state claptrap” it does readers a disservice.