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.

Confusion, Misunderstandings, and Net Neutrality

Trying to clear up some of the confusion and common misunderstandings regarding the concept commonly named as “Net Neutrality.”

I’ve seen a lot of argument back and forth on the issue of “Net Neutrality,” and one thing that really jumps out at me is how much confusion and misunderstanding there is regarding what the phrase “Net Neutrality” really means. This is an attempt to clear up some of the confusion.

At the root of the problem is that the phrase “Net Neutrality” is not actually a very accurate or descriptive phrase for the underlying problem it’s supposed to describe.

This is a problem because one you label a complex issue with a simple name, people will forget what the underlying issue is and simply take the meaning from the descriptive name – and if the name is misleading, then people will misunderstand the issue.

Don’t believe me? Just look at people arguing about “Global Warming.” Every time it snows somewhere that it doesn’t usually snow (or doesn’t usually snow very much) you will get people screaming that this means that “global warming” is a farce. “How can it be warming when it’s so cold out!” Because the phrase “global warming” was used to describe a more complex technical concept (e.g., the average temperature of the Earth rising by a few degrees, and the resulting climate changes that result from this), people forgot what the actual problem was and simply latched on to the name used to describe it. The same seems to be true for “Net Neutrality.”

People tend to see the word “neutrality” and think “that’s OK,” then they hear that Net Neutrality proponents want the government to step in to guarantee “net neutrality” and suddenly alarm bells start going off in their heads. “Wait a second, government is bad! If the network was ‘neutral’ wouldn’t that mean NO government regulation, instead of more?

So right off the bat here we’ve got misunderstandings caused simply by the name we use to refer to the problem.

The misunderstandings continue even as we try to clear up the confusion caused by having a confusing name. One common misunderstanding is that somehow the idea of “Net Neutrality” would forbid ISPs and such from enforcing QoS and other similar things. This again stems from a poor choice of words, usually someone trying to describe “Net Neutrality” as “treating all Internet traffic the same.”

A better way to describe it would be “not discriminating against Internet traffic based on where the traffic originated.

That is to say, as an ISP it’s fine for you to throttle video services, or VoIP, or whatever you want (or need), so long as you’re not doing that throttling (or, in some cases, blocking) solely based on where those bits originally came from.

To understand why anyone would want to do this in the first place, and why it suddenly seems like yes, they do want to do it and might even start trying to do it very soon unless we do something (which is why people are all in an uproar over “Net Neutrality” in the first place), it helps to understand a little bit of the situation with ISPs.

The biggest ISPs – at least consumer ISPs, and at least in America – are Phone (DSL) and Cable companies. These are companies that don’t just provide Internet access – they also provide another service along with it, and that other service is how they got their start (and may even still be their biggest provider of income).

The biggest concern to these companies is that you will use the Internet service they provide to get around the need for the other services that they provide (phone & cable TV), and eventually their other services will die out and they’ll be left as nothing but Internet providers. While they might do very well as Internet providers, they don’t want to give up the “sure thing” of their existing services – and they will fight hard to keep that from happening.

In the case of the phone companies, they don’t want you using VoIP or Skype or whatever, because then you won’t need a phone line anymore. With the cable TV companies, they don’t want you watching video online (especially things like Netflix streaming or Hulu or even some types of videos on YouTube) because then you won’t need their cable TV service anymore.

To put it more simply, ISPs want to be able to block (or force extra payment for) access to competing services, and Net Neutrality says that they shouldn’t be allowed to do this.

That phone and cable companies want to be able to block (or charge extra for) access to these competing services sort of makes sense, in a way. If you owned a coffee shop, you wouldn’t want lots of people sitting around in your shop drinking the coffee they bought from the competing shop across the street, taking up your space but not making you any money, right?

But this doesn’t work on the Internet any more than it does in real life. In most places you aren’t allowed do discriminate against your customers – you can’t kick someone out because they have a coffee cup from that chain across the street. (But it is worth noting that you can kick them out if they’re causing a ruckus, which in Internet terms means you can enforce QoS and throttling to prevent abuse.) You also aren’t allowed to build a wall across the street so that people can’t walk past your store to your competitor’s store.

Looking at this from another angle, imagine if your Verizon phone couldn’t call AT&T phones unless you paid extra money for that ability, or perhaps such calls would be billed at a higher rate.

In many ways, this is a lot like the concept of “common carriers.” Phone companies are considered “common carriers,” which is why the situation I described above can’t happen (it’s prohibited specifically by law). But ISPs aren’t considered “common carriers,” and this is the crux of Net Neutrality. It’s really more about fairness than neutrality in that way.

Think about it like this: I pay for my Internet access, which gives me a certain amount of bandwidth – which I can use however I want. The sites I choose to visit also pay for bandwidth on their end (often at a MUCH higher rate than I do). So why would you want to allow ISPs to charge these sites AGAIN just because the traffic from their site (which they have no control over who is requesting it) happens to go across the ISP’s network (on its way to customer who has already paid for this bandwidth, I might add)? This is what Net Neutrality advocates are worried will happen unless we adopt rules similar to those for common carriers.

This is especially troubling considering that many places (at least in the US) have very little choice in ISPs – for a very large portion of people, it’s either DSL from the phone company or cable Internet from the cable TV provider. So the usual answer to problems like this (“just vote with your wallet!”) doesn’t apply.

Other confusion regarding “Net Neutrality” of course comes from the fact that we’re trying to involve the government with it, and that’s always asking for trouble, no matter how noble the intentions. Suffice to say, politicians do not understand the concept embodied in the phrase “Net Neutrality” very well. As a result the legislative solutions they propose tend to fall short of addressing the real problem, or sometimes they go way too far and end up being more harmful than the original problem they were meant to solve!

However, just because government tends to be incompetent doesn’t mean that that the underlying issue doesn’t exist.

The concept of Net Neutrality, no matter how confusing its name, is an important issue. Government regulation may or may not be the ideal way to address it, but a lot of very smart people seem to think that it does at least need to be addressed somehow.

Hopefully this article has helped clear up some of the confusion about what “Net Neutrality” really means, so that at least we can all be on equal footing to debate its merits and potential solutions (or why no solution might be needed).

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.

Lessons we still haven’t learned from 1984

Looking at George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ and seeing some uncomfortable parallels to our modern world.

There are 3 lessons (out of many) that it seems like we still haven’t learned from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Briefly, they are:

  • Pervasive government surveillance is bad.
  • Censorship/rewriting history is bad.
  • Constant fear of an unseen external enemy is a great way to control people.

Sound familiar?

Another way to put it is that we have learned these lessons, but that we just chose to ignore them. Either way, the effect is the same.

Let’s take these one at a time, shall we?

Pervasive government surveillance is bad. Specifically, the kind of pervasive surveillance where: the government might be watching you at any time; you have no idea if you’re being watched; and there is little or no oversight.

Think about how different your daily behavior – and I’m talking about all of your behavior, from the moment you get out of bed in the morning to when you go to sleep at night – would be if you knew that someone was watching you every single moment of every single day.

Remember: some surveillance is fine, on a small scale, but ubiquitous surveillance by a single controlling entity is absolutely not OK.

For a free society to function, people need to be “secure from unreasonable searches and seizures,” which also implies having a bit of privacy. The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is also quite important – but if everyone is under surveillance, there’s a sort of presumption of guilt in that, which implies that everyone is guilty, they just haven’t been caught on tape yet (but they will be!).

Censorship/rewriting history is bad. Censorship on its own is bad enough, but once you start censoring non-fiction, you are effectively re-writing history (or the historical record, anyway).

For a free society to function, the people must be able to find out the truth. When things are censored or re-written, it becomes impossible to find out the truth (as most people understand the meaning of “truth”). Instead, “truth” becomes what the censor believes should be the truth, instead of what actually is (or was). Drawing from the novel 1984 again, this is more along the lines of what O’Brien says the truth is (i.e., whatever The Party says it is) as opposed to what Winston believes it is (an external thing that can’t be altered or covered up).

Which version of “truth” would you prefer?

Constant fear of an unseen enemy is a great way to control people. Some people will by now be getting tired of me harping on this point again and again, but it really is the most important point we can draw from 1984. In fact, this is one of the founding principles of the dystopian government described in the book – that it doesn’t matter who you are at war with, as long as there is always an enemy to direct your hate at, then people can be easily controlled and will willingly go along with things they would otherwise morally oppose.

Parallels to Today

All three of the points I’ve made above can be seen in greater or lesser degrees in our society today. We may not have the telescreens from 1984, but we do have security cameras almost everywhere – in stores, in banks, in malls, in restaurants, in public buildings, in public places, and on public roads. On top of all the cameras, our phones have GPS built in, our cameras can “tag” photos with GPS coordinates (telling people where we were when we took the photo), web sites can use location-awareness to pin down your location (generally accurate, but not pinpoint accurate… yet), and of course our phones and email can be tapped/record/read by police/government agents at any time, without our knowledge, and often without any sort of civil or judicial oversight. There is a famous quote by the Englishman William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, from 200 years ago that is still applicable today: If society has regressed to where power alone is sufficient for government action, we have a police state.

Fortunately, at least here in the US, censorship and the re-writing of history has not come as far as it has in some countries (e.g., China). However, that’s not to say that we’re not on our way towards stricter censorship. Politicians, political pundits, and others will frequently reverse their position on an issue, and then deny that they ever held any other position but the one they have right now. If this doesn’t strike anyone as a perfect example of Doublethink, then I don’t know what would. And once people start thinking that way, it is inevitable that they will want to re-write history to match what they think… and on that path lies madness.

As for the constant fear aspect, well, I hardly need to provide examples, considering that we’ve had a constant “enemy” for nearly 80 years now. It started, in large part, back in World War II, with the Nazis – who were of course quite real! But after that, our fear shifted to the Soviet Union and Communism – so much so that we started turning in people around us for fear that they were communists, and accusing people left and right of deviating from the “party line.” (Just read up on McCarthyism for a chilling look at how fear of an unseen enemy made people behave.) During that time, not agreeing with the ruling class’s political beliefs was enough to get you thrown in jail. Again, does any of this sound familiar? Because it should, seeming as it does to be drawn almost verbatim from George Orwell’s novel!

Of course, since the collapse of the Soviet Union we had to find something else to fear, and it took us a little while to find it – but find it we did, under the increasingly broad definition of “terrorism.” There’s a lot of parallels between our old imagined enemies of the communist era and our new imagined “terrorist” enemies:

  • They are from a foreign country, naturally (one that few of us have been too, so it seems even more foreign to most of us – because “foreigners are scary”).
  • They could be anywhere – even hiding in plain sight! They might even be someone you already know! (“Be afraid of everyone, even your friends.”)
  • They could strike us at any time! (“Always be afraid.”)
  • Not content with the explanation of “some people are fighting against us because they disagree very strongly with us,” we’ve somehow morphed things into some sort of EPIC BATTLE, because it’s our ideals and principles against theirs, and of course we have to win because THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.
  • If you disagree with the idea that this is an EPIC BATTLE which we MUST FIGHT and MUST WIN because there is NO OTHER CHOICE IF WE WANT TO SURVIVE then you are branded as UN-AMERICAN.

Given all of these parallels, you’d think at least someone would maybe stop and point them out and sort of deflate the rhetoric being tossed around to justify all of the above – but no, sadly, no.

In the end, most people are more interested in other things – maybe the economy, or more likely what was on Lost or The Bachelor last night. So we just ignore what’s going on, forget the history lessons we were taught in school (assuming it’s still being taught in school – I worry sometimes), and march towards a future that is, sadly, just like the past… because we refused to learn from it.

Dear TSA: An Idea for Full-Body Scanners

An open letter to the TSA: wouldn’t it be nice to just replace all the security nonsense with one quick & easy full-body scan?

RE: Full Body Scanners

Dear TSA:

I can’t help but notice that you’ve somehow got it into your head that we need full-body scanners now at every US airport. Well, I have a suggestion for you while you’re at it: instead of adding full-body scanners on top of everything else you’ve got to delay me while trying to get to my plane, why don’t you replace all the x-ray machines and other nonsense with just the one single (and hopefully, quick!) full-body scanner?

Think about it: you wouldn’t have to ask people to take off their shoes, unpack laptops from their bags, empty spare change from their pockets, remove belts, take of scarves, and so forth. Just the one scanner could scan EVERYTHING on the person. Just a few seconds, and BAM! you’re done. How nice would that be?

Of course, this idea hinges on the full-body scanner actually being useful for scanning people. If, on the other hand, it is just a huge, expensive, time-wasting machine to check for explosives in people’s underwear, then I have to tell you, respectfully, that this is a complete waste of time, money, and effort. So just knock it off already.

But if it works, and if you could replace all the other nonsense at security checkpoints in airports with one quick, fast, non-invasive scan, then by all means, go ahead!

Just a thought – but one I hope you guys take seriously!