Calling for a Response to Digital ID

Last year, Congress passed the Real ID Act, a law that calls for standardization of drivers’ licenses across the country by 2008. The current reaction from states like California and New Hampshire raises questions about how a national ID system would affect civil liberties, putting welcome pressure on the federal government.

California might have a reputation for supporting civil liberties but on the national ID debate the state is moving to comply blindly with federal mandates. Just this week, California’s Senate Transportation Committee approved a measure that would bring the state into compliance with the Real ID Act.

‘Mark of the Beast’

New Hampshire, on the other hand, is kicking up a storm warning of big brother and what some consider “the mark of the beast.” Indeed, last month the New Hampshire House passed a bill barring the state from taking part in Real ID, rejecting it as a de facto national ID system. Testifying at a hearing on the issue, the Cato Institute’s Jim Harper said:

“Americans and New Hampshirites should be free to go about their lawful business without being asked to identify themselves at government checkpoints. We are increasingly seeing this freedom restricted. New Hampshire’s participation in the Real ID Act would diminish Americans’ and New Hampshirites’ ability to go where they want, and do what they want, free of interference by governmental authorities.”

Since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is currently working on regulations for the new ID cards, it remains unclear what kind of restrictions citizens would face in their daily lives. Of course, that means this is exactly the time to discuss how government should collect and use information. And with an issue as important as a standardized national ID card, the debate should be loud and public, not behind the closed doors of a DHS office.

That makes comments like those of New Hampshire’s Pastor Ervin “Butch” Paugh a welcome development, even for those Americans who don’t subscribe to the Christian faith. Of the Real ID act, Paugh said, “This is a total takeover by the beast system and a plan to ID everyone on the planet.”

Coming to Compromise

Of course, completely nixing the idea of a national ID card, as Paugh would like, is a naive and risky proposition. America already has a national ID system — it’s called the driver’s license and is administered by each state. Most people don’t mind this kind of ID system because the information collected by the states isn’t easily sharable and thus far hasn’t led to any civil liberties problems.

On the other hand, state barriers to information sharing do create problems for law enforcement when they can’t identify crooks and terrorists past state lines. That’s the problem the Real ID act is trying to address, but it remains to be seen if federal bureaucrats can devise a system that incorporates sharing with civil liberty safeguards. That’s why a national discussion, including our most brilliant technologists in Silicon Valley, is in order. That brings us back to the enigma of California simply giving in to federal demands on an issue so vital to its population.

Second Look

California Senator Gil Cedillo who sponsored California’s recent legislation on this issue defends California’s complacency by arguing that it “is the national consensus.” The uproar in New Hampshire shows that to be untrue. Californians should take a second look at a law that will affect them and their children for years to come.

If the proper safeguards are not put in place for America’s new national ID system, it could spell disaster. But the right systems, with built-in transparency and accountability, could go a long way towards making the country a safer place. The time has come for other states to follow New Hampshire’s lead and participate in the discussion.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute and author of “Canning Spam: An Economic Solution to Unwanted E-mail.”

1 Comment

  • I applaud your call for a national debate for national Identification. I would like to know if you feel that this method of "failure to comply with federal law" constitutes "entering into debate"? I fail to see that connection.
    I would like to see those who make the laws to first: get informed themselves. Engage their constituents and find out what their fears, concerns, and true misgivings would be to having a truly verifiable national identification system. Use whatever it takes: community blogs, town meetings, whatever. Then: have demostrable, verifiable investigation into whether those fears and concerns are valid or just "preacher prognostication".
    Finally, we already have more than just the driver’s license as a federal identification, mind you. It’s difficult to work in this country without a Social Security card (number). (Of course, 11 million illegal aliens might argue, or if you’re independently wealthy, you don’t have to work, but I’m sure you still have to report capital gains every year, so you’re still required to have one for the IRS.)
    I fail to see that the "Big Brother" syndrome is a valid argument. With the passage of the Patriot Act (and its recent unfortunate extension), the government has the power and the ability to get into your eMail, your bank accounts, your blog, even your pants if they want to– who’s going to stop them? I, personally, have to side with those ignorant masses that say, "Hey, the only ones that are hiding are the ones that have something to hide."
    I mean, seriously: If a government agency has your number, I’m not blind to both arguments, but I can only see the merits as strong points. It ensures the government that I AM who I say I AM , therefore, there are not two of me (drawing some type of government benefit more than once); I AM /am not wanted in conjunction with some legal infraction; and as a result, neither are the other 200+ passengers sitting next to me on my next flight somewhere. This is called peace of mind– IMHO.
    I also realize there are plusses and minuses and that this issue, if it truly enters "debate" status, could go on and on and on… Doesn’t it boil down to a matter of "trust"? Apparently the "privacy advocates" are scared to death of a leadership that "knows" everything about them. They do not trust their government leadership. And that is the issue at the root of this which is something we love to debate, isn’t it?

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