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.

“Stranger Safety” and “Public Solitude”

Today I saw an ad for a video called “Stranger Safety.” It’s supposed to teach your children how to be safe around strangers.

Thinking about it afterward, I realized that there is this mentality – driven into our collective mindset over many years – that ALL strangers are not to be trusted; that ALL strangers are bad and will hurt us. And I’m not sure it’s a good mentality to have.

It certainly explains the current trend of “public solitude” that I see in increasing amounts in our society today. I used to think that maybe it was just there were too many people these days – cities and towns were too crowded, and you just couldn’t know everyone, so you kept to yourself. But I think it goes beyond that – we’ve been indoctrinated with the belief that if we don’t know someone, they are bad.

This has some wide-ranging implications, and I don’t just mean keeping to yourself on the subway or something like that. When we are taught to not trust strangers, the implication is that we must implicitly trust people we know. This fragments our society – suddenly, the people we know are “right” and everyone else is “wrong.” Instead of being one big group of people, united as a culture, a nation, or whatever, we become segmented into cliques – and our opposition to those we see as “wrong” becomes more and more violent. Just look at the fighting between our two dominant political parties – the Democrats and the Republicans. Despite all that, they really are quite alike – more alike than they are different, anyway. So why do they fight?

Because the opposition is always made up of “strangers.” And strangers are “bad.” And in an atmosphere of fear (such as the one we currently live in), it’s easy to get riled up and defensive of one’s own “group.”

Don’t believe me? Go watch some political coverage. Watch both sides. Read some stuff on the Internet or in your paper from people who disagree with you, and see if the rhetoric isn’t tinged with a certain “get off my lawn” madness.

The point is, not all strangers are bad – and in a good society, the odds are that most strangers will in fact be quite good and helpful. Even given the bad things that one bad egg could do to you as a stranger, the odds are still very, very low that it will happen to you – and the potential trade-offs in terms of enrichment of your life, or even just feeling better about things, and feeling accepted by your community – could make it worth the risk.

So think about it. And the next time you pass a stranger, resist the impulse to keep your head down and avoid eye contact and instead say “hi!” Chances are, nothing bad will happen to you. And once that kind of thinking beings to spread, I think we’ll all be a lot happier.

Our Paranoid Society

This is what happens when everyone is afraid of everyone else:

His mission was to photograph each of the nation’s 50 state capitol buildings and dispatch a postcard from each city, using postage stamps from a childhood collection. Each postcard would be mailed to the next state on his journey, where he would pick it up, continuing until he had gone full circle back to Indiana.

But there was a problem. On a flight from Sacramento, Calif., to Honolulu, Mr. Fazel described his project to a fellow passenger. He later discovered that she had reported him as suspicious — perhaps to the pilot or the Transportation Security Administration — and taken a picture of him as he slept.

How paranoid must we be for a passenger on an airplane to go to the trouble of taking a picture of someone while they sleep so as to make it easier to report him to the authorities?! Would you do this? Could you ever see yourself doing this? I know I couldn’t.

Once we start reporting one another for “suspicious activity,” we’re doomed. Neighbors who don’t get along will be reporting each other for fictions and imagined crimes, and the system will be abused for personal gain. After all, if you can just call a number and say “so-and-so acted weird, I suspect he’s a terrorist” and have that person arrested – I mean, c’mon people! We’re one step away from a loud knock in the middle of the night and lots of scary looking men in black jackets land here!

And if I hear one person say “we need to be like this, people are out to kill us, it’s a strange new world after 9/11,” I will say BULL. There is a fine line between healthy suspicion and rampant paranoia, and I am telling you – this is the latter, not the former.

Now that this gentleman has been (wrongly) accused, how does he clear his good name? How does he get himself off the “extra screening” list? How can he stop the harassment? He was not charged of anything, he turned out to be completely harmless. So where is his recourse?

Unlike being arrested for a “normal” crime, he has no recourse. There is no court that can seal his records (or remove them completely). He has no one to appeal to. The system is secret and allows for no questioning of its inner workings. It is a system designed to quash any opposition. If you don’t like it, be careful about saying so – you’ll end up on the list and endlessly harassed every time you exercise your right to travel. The system is designed to “bully” people into submission. You dare not speak up for fear of the inconvenience it’ll cause you.

Which, coincidentally, brings to mind the story of a bunch of people who got fed up with the same sort of thing – a system designed to “bully” them into submission. Every time they complained, the system just squeezed them harder, hoping that they’d just roll over and accept domination.

Fortunately for us, those people didn’t roll over. They were the founding fathers of the United States of America, and they stood up to this sort of harassment, bullying, and removal of their inalienable rights.

We could all do well to learn – or re-learn – from their example in these troubling times.

Who do you trust?

It’s very hard to decide what is true and what is false when you don’t trust anyone’s sources.

I’ve been involved in some crazy arguments/discussions in the past. Things like 9/11 conspiracy theories, that whole “the moon landing was faked” thing, along with lots of others.

I love using logic to solve an argument, but there’s a fundamental weakness that eventually destroys any hope of stamping out crazy theories, and that weakness is trust.

As an example, I’m going to use the “moon landing was faked” argument, because I saw it come up in a discussion on Slashdot recently.

The problem, as I watched both sided argue, was one of who do you trust. The side that believed the moon landing was faked didn’t trust anyone – they didn’t trust NASA, the US Government, or any government for that matter. You could try to argue back with them about any number of things – my favorite is the laser range finding reflectors that Apollo astronauts left on the moon, which can be verified fairly easily – and they’ll just disbelieve you. They don’t trust anything. If you say “astronomers have verified the reflectors,” they’ll just say something like “the government paid them to say that” or “the government sent up a second rocket with only a robot to put the reflectors there; men have never been on the moon, only robots.” If you counter with “well, someone would have noticed a second Saturn V rocket being shot towards the moon,” they’ll just come back again and say “the CIA covered it up” or “the Russians didn’t have deep-space tracking capability.” No matter what you do, they will either disbelieve what you present as facts (claiming that they don’t “trust” your source), or they’ll vaguely link your argument back to something that they don’t trust (the government, the CIA, the Russians, etc.).

Now, in the context of the moon landing, this might not seem like such a huge deal – I mean, so what, right? So there are a few nuts out there that don’t believe that man has walked on the moon. So what?

Well, the problem isn’t that there are people who don’t believe in the moon landing, the problem is that this same sort of phenomenon crops up in more modern, more pressing issues today. Just look at the arguments regarding global warming. The whole thing is one big mess, because nobody trusts anyone. People don’t trust politicians, politicians don’t trust scientists, and the whole thing is just a big mess of the child-like game of “uh-huh!” and “nuh-uh!”

And in case that wasn’t enough, we can take a look at the other side of the coin.

I’ve talked a lot about our government’s attempts to grab more power and reduce individual rights and privacy, and why these are bad things. Recently, a report came out that illustrates this problem rather succinctly:

Government Employee Uses DHS Database to Track Ex-Girlfriend

“According to the indictment, Robinson, began a relationship with an unidentified woman in 2002 that ended acrimoniously seven months later. After the breakup, federal authorities allege Robinson accessed a government database known as the TECS (Treasury Enforcement Communications System) at least 163 times to track the travel patterns of the woman and her family.”

As Bruce Schneier points out (and this has been pointed out by many people, over and over again):

“When you build a surveillance system, you invite trusted insiders to abuse that system.”

There’s that word trust again.

People get all up in a fuss over government surveillance, national ID cards, and so forth not because they don’t see the benefits of the system, but because they don’t trust the government to only use the system for its stated purpose.

If you’ve read around my StarKeith.net site, you might have found that the fictional “Federation” that I use in my stories has a surveillance system that would make Big Brother proud – it tracks just about everything. Why is it that I write about a civilization with so much surveillance, but then seem to opposed to surveillance from our own government? The answer, of course, is trust.

In my fictional world, surveillance is entirely handled by a self-aware computer system that is totally obedient to the laws, and has elaborate, well-tested, well-thought-out, and robust security systems in place to ensure that private information remains private. My fictional government might seem 1984-ish at first glance, but a closer inspection reveals elaborate privacy controls and systems – including things like warrants, probable cause, and so forth – all to prevent abuse. I put these things in my fictional world precisely because I know that they are needed. I know that no matter how good your intentions are, someone will mis-use a system. And it is precisely because I have never seen such precautions proposed for any system build here in our real world today that I stand so strongly opposed to their implementation. Until there are privacy controls and systems that I trust completely, I will continue to oppose such systems.

So there you have it – the problems of trust.

There are no clear-cut answers for how to solve this problem, although I can think of a few simple things to get us all started. Firstly, we need openness and transparency in our government. Only when we can see exactly what’s going on inside can we begin to rebuild the trust that our government has lost. Politicians need to stop lying – or weaseling out of things, anyway. Truth, honesty, and honor (no more scapegoats) will go a long way towards restoring trust.

After all, I’d hate to see the kind of world where there is no trust anymore – the kind of world where everyone thinks the moon landings were faked.

I’m sure you can think of a few more ways to help – feel free to share them. Although, don’t just share them with me – share them with your friends, your family, your co-workers. Write to your representatives, at both the local, state, and Federal level.

But only if you trust me. 😉

Never Fear

“There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense.”

Fear.

Fear has been used throughout our history to justify some of the most horrible actions ever taken by people – all in the name of justice, righteousness, and protection. It has happened before, and I assert that it is happening again. And it is up to us to stop it now.

There is a great line from the movie V for Vendetta:

“I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense.”

This has never been more true than it is now. I especially like that bit, “rob you of your common sense.” Allow me to demonstrate the ridiculous levels to which our fear has elevated itself (with thanks to Bruce Schneier for the links):

Fear that Terrorists might Poison Gumball Machines

“Fear that terrorists could poison children has led three Dover aldermen to begin inspecting gumball machines.

“They’ve surveyed 103 machines in the Morris County town and expect to report their results on New Year’s Day.

“Aldermen Frank Poolas, Jack Delaney and Michael Picciallo have found 100 unlicensed machines filled with gumballs, jawbreakers and other candies. The three feel they’re ripe for terrorists to lace with poisoned products.”

And:

Fear that Remote-Controlled Toys Might be Used as Bombs

“Airport screeners are giving additional scrutiny to remote-controlled toys because terrorists could use them to trigger explosive devices, the Transportation Security Administration said Monday.”

Snow-globes are also suspect:

Fear of Snow Globes that Might be Used as Bombs

“Snow globes, regardless of size of amount of liquid inside, even with documentation, are prohibited in your carry-on.”

The list goes on and on. In case the absolute absurdity of that first one escaped you, let me re-state it: someone is checking gumball machines because they are afraid a terrorist might have poisined the gumballs.

What sort of person thinks up things like this? How afraid do you have to be to wake up one morning and think, “Oh my God! Our gumball machines are totally vulnerable! What if someone poisined them?” Just how fearful are you to seriously consider this as a credible threat, one worth spending a lot of time worrying about? You’re probably more likely to get hit by lightning, but I don’t see newspapers plastered with headlines like “Terrorists Claim Responsibility for Lightning Strike.” (Although now that I’ve said it, I’m sure I’ll see that headline soon.)

It’s sad, very, very sad, to see all this happening in my lifetime.

Think about this: we’ve become so fearful that we’re willing to accept any vague “threat” as if it were an imminent disaster about to strike. It’s the “Chicken Little” phenomenon – we were hit on the head once, and now whenever someone makes a claim like “the sky is falling,” we react as if it were totally true and possible.

All this, of course, leads me to ask a simple question – with a rather troubling answer:

Can you really say you are “free” when you live your whole life in fear?

You might argue that there are “reasons” to be afraid. You might even be right. But a healthy dose of skepticism goes a long way towards preventing abuses. I don’t like “slippery slope” arguments, but experience has shown that the “slippery slope” is often quite real.

Speaking of “slippery slopes,” allow me to quote Captain Picard:

“Oh, yes. That’s how it starts! But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think.”

Although a fictional character from a (science) fictional show, there is a good deal of truth in that statement. And while I’m at it, let me quote the Afterward section (written by Erich Fromm) of the paperback edition of George Orwell’s 1984:

“…fright and hatred of a possible aggressor will destroy the basic attitudes of a democratic, humanistic society.”

And since 1984 was written in 1948, you can see that these are not new ideas. We’ve seen it time and time again – fear used to usurp power.

I’m not trying to place blame here. I’m not a mindless “Bush-basher,” nor am I going to spout the other party’s lines that would place the blame all on Clinton (either Bill or Hillary). The situation is a bit more complicated than that, although few people seem to realize it. Politics is a complex game of give and take, after all. Although if you want to point fingers, well, allow me to quote V for Vendetta again:

“…if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.”

This is a democracy, after all. Whatever else has been going on, you still have the power of your voice and your vote. Hell, with the power of the Internet, your voice has never been more powerful, or more capable of reaching a wide audience. There’s no escaping responsibility on this one.

Of course, frankly, at this point, I think you can put aside all the talk of terrorists and Islamic extremists and whatever else you want to use to justify these sorts of actions. At this point, they could all retire, and nothing would change. We’ve become our own worst enemy. Fear has become our enemy. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and that’s God-damned right. It’s time for us to grow up, and stop being afraid.

I know I’m not afraid. The question is, then, are you?