Our Dangerous Obsession with Identity

Over the past 10 years, we’ve developed an obscene obsession with “identity,” and for all the wrong reasons.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve developed an obscene obsession with “identity,” and for all the wrong reasons.

ID CardAt every turn it seems like there are more requirements for “proof of identity,” or requests for ID. Somehow we’ve gotten it into our collective consciousness that being sure of someone’s identity removes all risk of fraud, theft, or crime – but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, stricter requirements for “proof of identity” are, largely, a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time.

Consider this example: the state where I currently live (New Jersey) has an insanely complicated “6 point system” for getting (or even renewing!) a driver’s license. (This is due, at least in part, to the stupid REAL ID Act, which I’ve written about before.) You need “6 points” worth of identification, with different forms of identification being given different point values. For example, a passport is worth 4 points, but a drivers license from any other state is only worth 1 point. And it’s not enough to just get the 6 points you need – you have to have at least one document from each of several categories! And as if that’s not enough, you need another separate document “proving” that you are a resident, which gives you no points, but you need it anyway.

This obsession with “proving identity” seems to stem from the misguided belief that knowing who someone is gives you some insight into what their intentions are. This is obviously a fallacy. So too is the idea that somehow people with sinister intentions would be unable to prove their identity (because all “bad guys” have fake names and use fake IDs, right?). Although a 5th grader would probably understand all of the holes in this logic, somehow this has become our de-facto operating principle at both the large corporation and government level.

Part of this, I think, stems from CYA syndrome, otherwise known as “cover your ass” syndrome.

You see, by forcing everyone to prove who they are, you do establish some sort of paper trail that can be useful after the fact in solving crimes that have already happened. But this is a very small benefit for a hugely cumbersome system of identity verification and re-verification.

It is somewhat of a tangent, but on a personal level I find this constant need to “prove” that I am who I say I am very insulting. This constant doubt of your sincerity and trustworthiness is, frankly, wearisome.

While it’s true that there are some holes in the systems we use for identification, our obsession with identity hasn’t really addressed these concerns in any meaningful way. People continue to get fake IDs, and those who wish to commit crimes (or perpetrate acts of terrorism) will do so, regardless of whether they were able to get a driver’s license or not. So in the end, this obsession with ID is really, truthfully, and honestly a complete waste of time.

You trust me on that, right?

Photo “ID Card” by Gareth Harper, used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

Bin Laden’s Dead – Now What?

Now that Osama Bin Laden is dead, what do we do next?

When I woke up this morning, I heard the news that Osama Bin Laden was killed. My immediate reaction?

“Great – will I be able to bring more than 3 oz. of liquid or gel on a plane now though?”

When you think about it, the litany of insane security regulations we’ve adopted since 9/11 are sort of Bin Laden’s legacy – being forced to take your shoes off at the airport, being x-rayed before you can visit the Statue of Liberty, etc. But now that he’s dead, only his legacy will live on… and that just doesn’t seem right to me.

Given all the hate and rage we directed at this guy, why are we letting the things that constitute his legacy live on, even after we’ve killed him? I kind of imagine him laughing at us from beyond the grave as we continue to shuffle the elderly, children, etc., through body-scanning machines after making them wait in line for an hour just to pass onto a plane. Or as we continue to arrest/harass  photographers. Or any of a dozen other crazy things we do, all in the name of “making us safer from terrorists.”

And that brings me to another point. Bin Laden’s death brought me absolutely no satisfaction, because I had stopped considering him a threat years and years ago. Instead, given the media circus that is naturally going to follow this event, I feel sort of like a bully who’s bragging now about finally being able to punch out that kid we didn’t like. I mean, effectively, we killed this guy for one reason: revenge. And that doesn’t make us look (or feel) very noble or enlightened, as we claim to be.

This is further complicated by the fact that it took nearly 10 years to find this guy. This length of time just diminishes the effect of his death. If it had been a year later, or 3 years, or even 5 years, it would not have been as bad… but 10 years later? Even though we killed him in the end, he did manage to elude us for 10 years. It kind of makes it into a hollow victory, in a way.

In a way, I think that the death of Bin Laden is going to be just a minor footnote in history – although the media will undoubtedly blow it out of proportion and make it out to be the most major victory against terrorism ever (they have started blowing their trumpets already). The real victory will be when I don’t have to take my shoes off at the airport anymore, or when every federal building, no matter how small, has armed guards and you have to go through a security screening just to enter.

As I said on Twitter shortly after I heard the news:

Killing somebody is relatively easy. But reversing years of fear-induced public policy? Now *that's* hard. #binladenisdead

Now that Bin Laden is dead, we should be screaming for a reduction in our over-zealous security policy. If we make the death of Bin Laden out to be a big deal, then naturally this means we can relax our security. On the other hand, if we largely ignore this, then our security will stay the way it is, because the “enemy” is not someone we can kill, since it’s just an idea. And that’s what “perpetual war” is all about… but that’s a topic for another day.

Once we repeal some (or all!) of the stupid security laws we’ve enacted since 9/11, then we’ll have something to celebrate about. When we stop being afraid of our own shadow and every “suspicious” person, then we’ll be able to say “we won.”

I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security

We’ve spent over one TRILLION dollars on “homeland security,” but what have we really gotten out of it?

This article, “Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security,” by John Mueller and Mark Stewart, should be required reading for every senator and representative in Congress, no matter what. And they should be forced to actually read it, completely, from front to back.

The cumulative increase in expenditures on US domestic homeland security over the decade since 9/11 exceeds one trillion dollars. It is clearly time to examine these massive expenditures applying risk assessment and cost-benefit approaches that have been standard for decades. Thus far, officials do not seem to have done so and have engaged in various forms of probability neglect by focusing on worst case scenarios; adding, rather than multiplying, the probabilities; assessing relative, rather than absolute, risk; and inflating terrorist capacities and the importance of potential terrorist targets. We find that enhanced expenditures have been excessive: to be deemed cost-effective in analyses that substantially bias the consideration toward the opposite conclusion, they would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day. Although there are emotional and political pressures on the terrorism issue, this does not relieve politicians and bureaucrats of the fundamental responsibility of informing the public of the limited risk that terrorism presents and of seeking to expend funds wisely. Moreover, political concerns may be over-wrought: restrained reaction has often proved to be entirely acceptable politically.

To put it really plainly, we are vastly over-spending when it comes to “security” compared to the actual risk that terrorism poses.

It’s a bit like a person whose house was broken into once, and now they’re afraid it might happen again, so they have a massive underground safe room installed which costs 10x more than the total value of their house.

To take this analogy a bit further, this hypothetical person would also have to have effectively bankrupted themselves, spending many, many, many times more than their annual salary on this “safe room” along with better locks and multiple home alarm systems.

Of course, thanks to all this stuff, all their friends and neighbors never come over to their house anymore – it’s just too hard to get in the front door (too many locks, the alarm keeps going off unless you open them in the right order, etc.), and once you’re inside you’re uncomfortably aware that you’re being recorded on camera for the entire duration of your stay.

So, this person loses all their friends, and probably any family that’s living with them (they go stay with friends or other relatives), until they are left, all alone, in the ordinary house that is fortified with every imaginable security device.

Except that they are constantly harassed by debt collectors, because without any family left in the house contributing to the household income, they don’t have enough money to pay for all the loans taken out to install all the security.

And the final irony will come when a burglar breaks in through the upstairs window, which doesn’t have an alarm on it because it’s up so high, but nobody noticed that there’s a tree right next to it, so all that money spent on security was really wasted. (And the money spent on that underground “safe room” was also wasted because the burglary happened while the person wasn’t home.)

I think that if the sort of scenario I described above happened in real life – even if it wasn’t quite as extreme – we could all safely agree that the person spending all this money is overly paranoid and maybe even just a bit crazy and maybe needs some serious therapy.

Now substitute the hypothetical person for the United States of America and replace the house with our country, and the safe room and security systems and door locks with “homeland security” and my analogy is complete.

And yet nobody thinks it’s odd, paranoid, or crazy for our government to act this way, when we’d all probably agree it’s very odd, terribly paranoid, and almost certainly a bit crazy for an individual to do the same.

Unfortunately, our government will continue to spend without assessing the risks, benefits, or costs for as long as they are allowed to. They won’t step back and take a look at what they are doing until we, the people who elected them, tell them to. (Or more specifically, until not doing so puts their re-election at risk.)

You know where I’m headed with this. So get out there and tell your elected representative what you think! And tell others to do the same!

We Don’t Know How to Handle Terrorism

Found this very insightful quote over on Slashdot, and I couldn’t agree more:

“Countries like the UK and Israel have experience with terrorism, and they’ve developed reasonably sane ways of handling it. Just to be clear, I’m not praising the fact that they stole land from the Irish and the Palestinians — but at least they don’t act like total idiots when someone sets off a bomb. The US, on the other hand, responded to 9/11 by running around like a chicken with its head cut off. We shot ourselves in the foot in ways that were far worse than any of the damage done by the 9/11 hijackers, including two wars and an all-out assault on our own civil liberties. Compared to that kind of national self-mutilation, I can’t really take it too seriously when I’m not allowed to bring a full-size shampoo bottle on an airplane — but it certainly is an example of the same idiocy, just on a smaller scale.”

As elections are coming up here in the US again soon, it’s worth remembering things like this and keeping it in mind when you are choosing who gets your vote.

Citizen Surveillance

Thoughtful comments on the idea of citizens keeping tabs on their police & government, instead of only the other way around.

Found this great quote over at Slashdot today:

“The whole point of our post-Enlightenment traditions in the West has been the understanding that Authority, if left unchecked, will naturally tend towards abuse. The Police, in all their forms throughout the ages, have always been the most visible aspect of abusive Authority. The ability of the citizen to make his fellow citizens aware of abuses by Authority is key to the preservation of liberal democratic values. If you give the Authorities any sort of free pass on this, you simply invite them to do their worst. If you catch them doing their worst (ie. we just had the fortieth anniversary of the Kent State Shootings), then there is some capacity to assure some degree of justice, and more importantly for the Authorities to moderate their own behaviors.”

This comment was posted in response to a story about how police were fighting to keep from being recorded by ordinary citizens.

I’ve posted about this before, and apparently this sort of thing even has a name: “Sousveillance.” The idea that if your government has the right to monitor you, then you also should have the right to monitor your government.

This sort of stuff seems like it would be self-evident – I mean, how could you argue against this? But apparently it’s not, and apparently people do argue against it – in many cases successfully.

It surprises me that, generally speaking, most people would not deny the wisdom of the statement “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet when put in a position of power, a person who just agreed to that statement would most likely add, “except for me.”

It seems to me that the very definition of corruption is when those in power carve exceptions in the Rule of Law which apply only to themselves.

Vigilance – that is the price we must continually pay. “Who watches the watchers,” and so on.

And, of course: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.