Richard Clarke: Real ID's, Real Dangers (NY Times)

From the New York Times --

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Have you ever wondered what good it does when they look at your driver's license at the airport? Let me assure you, as a former bureaucrat partly responsible for the 1996 decision to create a photo-ID requirement, it no longer does any good whatsoever. The ID check is not done by federal officers but by the same kind of minimum-wage rent-a-cops who were doing the inspection of carry-on luggage before 9/11.

They do nothing to verify that your license is real. For $48 you can buy a phony license on the Internet (ask any 18-year-old) and fool most airport ID checkers. Airport personnel could be equipped with scanners to look for the hidden security features incorporated into most states' driver's licenses, but although some bars use this technology to spot under-age drinkers, airports do not. The photo-ID requirement provides only a false sense of security.

Congress is debating the Real ID bill in part because many states have been issuing real driver's licenses, complete with the hidden security features, to people who have established their identities using phony birth certificates or fake Social Security cards. Indeed, some 9/11 hijackers obtained real driver's licenses using false documents. The Real ID bill has, however, provoked negative reaction from those who think it has little to do with terrorism and a lot to do with making life difficult for illegal immigrants. While the bill has passed the House, it faces difficulty in the Senate. If portions of it do pass, it will mean that the next time you apply for a driver's license, you may need substantial proof that you are who you claim to be.

The Real ID legislation has caused the right and the left of the political spectrum to worry again that a national ID card is in the offing. Since we use licenses as de facto national ID's now, we should make them difficult to counterfeit and relatively easy to verify. With existing technology, that can be done. The Homeland Security Department is testing ''smart cards'' (credit-card-size devices with computer chips and embedded biometric information, like fingerprints) for all workers in the transportation industry and is also experimenting with voluntary smart cards for expedited passage through airport security. President Bush has directed that all federal employees, starting later this year, carry smart cards for access to federal buildings and computer networks. Industry analysts estimate that tens of millions of Americans will be using government-issued smart cards in a few years.

Should we feel safer or be concerned about Big Brother government and the loss of privacy? Since we are already widely using government- issued ID's for a variety of purposes, employing cards that are difficult to counterfeit seems on its face like a good idea. Verifiable, secure ID's will certainly reduce some crimes (nine million Americans were victims of identity theft last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission) and may create an impediment to terrorism.

I would voluntarily give up credit and other information for a card to avoid long airport lines, but I am not sure the Internal Revenue Service should have access to that data. Moreover, the government's performance to date with anti-terrorism laws does not inspire trust; the new authorities in the Patriot Act, which we readily gave the government to fight terrorists, are now being used for a variety of other purposes. For example, reports suggest that federal agents have been persuading courts to order that personal records be turned over regardless of whether there is any suspicion about the person involved and regardless of whether the crime being investigated is linked to terrorism.

If Americans are going to have to carry smart cards, we will want fellow citizens whom we trust ensuring the data collected are not used by the wrong people or for the wrong purposes. Technology will not help us there; we will need strict privacy rules, truly independent oversight and tough punishment for government abuse. Only then will we be comfortable using the new security technologies, which actually can make us safer. The National Intelligence Reform Act of last year provided for a new Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which could do the necessary work to restrain the government's tendencies to overreach. The quality of President Bush's nominees for that board will show how serious he is about protecting freedoms in America while he is promoting them abroad.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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John F. McMullen
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