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.

Your Papers, Please (Part 2)

Via Bruce Schneier’s blog – the TSA has a new photo ID requirement:

Beginning Saturday, June 21, 2008 passengers that willfully refuse to provide identification at security checkpoint will be denied access to the secure area of airports. This change will apply exclusively to individuals that simply refuse to provide any identification or assist transportation security officers in ascertaining their identity.

This new procedure will not affect passengers that may have misplaced, lost or otherwise do not have ID but are cooperative with officers. Cooperative passengers without ID may be subjected to additional screening protocols, including enhanced physical screening, enhanced carry-on and/or checked baggage screening, interviews with behavior detection or law enforcement officers and other measures.

You used to be able to travel without showing ID – your “papers” – it was a hassle, but you could do it. Now you can forget about it – ID is required. Unless you say you forgot it, in which case you’re OK. Because someone trying to hijack a plane or blow one up would never lie about not having ID…

Repeat after me: Identification does not equal security. Say it again: Identification does NOT equal security.

We’ll keep this up until someone gets the hint. In the meantime, get out your papers, comrade… or else!

UPDATE: In case you forgot about it, here’s part one of “Papers, Please,” and a really good quote from the Slashdot article that started me on this rant:

“I remember in the 80s we used to make jokes about Soviet citizens being asked “show me your papers” and needing internal passports to travel in their own country. Now we need internal passports to travel in our country. How did this happen? The requirement to show ID for flying on commercial passenger flights started in 1996, in response to the crash of TWA Flight 800. This crash was very likely caused by a mechanical failure. How showing ID to board a plane prevents mechanical failures is left as an exercise to the reader. How mandatory ID even prevents terrorist attacks is also not clear to me; all the 9/11 hijackers had valid government-issued ID. I hope the courts don’t wimp out on this fight.”

It seems like maybe the courts have wimped out on this fight, which is not only sad, but terribly distressing.

Clearly Stupid

Take a look at this ad I saw just the other day:

This has to be the single stupidest thing that has come about since the increased airline security policy went into effect after 9/11. It’s a card that supposedly will let you get through airport security faster – something about being “precleared.”

If you think about what that means for a little bit, little liberty-alarm bells should start going off in your head. This card effectively creates a new “class” of people – people who are “precleared.” People who are (supposedly) “safe.” Everyone else – and right now, unless you have one of these new cards, that includes you – is “untrusted.” Everyone else is “presumed guilty.”

Let me rephrase that – YOU are presumed guilty.

In effect, this is segregation – in the year 2008. Forget upper, middle, and lower classes – now we’ve got “precleared” and “possible terrorist.” And unlike the traditional social classes (upper, middle, and lower), you can’t work your way up to the new “precleared” class by yourself – you have to be “allowed” in.

“So what?” you might ask, “if I don’t want to be discriminated against, I’ll just sign up for the card.” Fair enough – but what if you are rejected? What are the criteria for being “precleared,” anyway?

What if you can’t sign up for this card because of the church you belong to? Or because of campaign donations you’ve made in the past? Or because of who you work for? Or because of your publicly stated beliefs?

Never mind that the whole idea of “precleared” is just plain bad security practice. (There are 3 links there, folks – read them all to understand the problem with “precleared” cards.)

Travel within the United States is supposed to be free and clear – we have no border posts between states, we don’t have to show papers to travel within our own country… or at least, we didn’t use to. Now we do – we have to show our new “national ID” – the specter of REAL ID rears its ugly head – and what your national ID says about you might determine whether you’re asked to step aside for “special” screening.

Personally, I’m going to be very disappointed if we just roll over and accept these sorts of things – as it appears we are doing. We have gone from the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” to the “Land of the Fearful and the Home of the Sheepish.”


Effects of REAL ID

C|NET News has a great writeup on what the effects of REAL ID are going to be to people in different states – depending on whether your state has complied or not.

There are some SERIOUS problems here of course – for example, you may not be able to go visit your representative in Washington DC if you don’t have a REAL ID – which is a clear violation of your right to petition your government.

And of course, today the news broke that the Department of Homeland Security is suggesting that REAL ID might be required to buy medicines that contain pseudophedrine. Of course, this has absolutely nothing to do with the original goal of REAL ID – it’s clear feature creep and the start of that slippery slope thing… that we were promised wouldn’t happen this time (really!).

As usual, the law – as it was originally passed – was supposed to be used to “stop terrorists.” Now it’s expanded to include immigration control, drug restrictions, and a “big stick” to beat down rebellious states – within our own country! States that have the guts to stand up and say “this is wrong, we won’t do it” are being beaten down with the power given to the DHS by the REAL ID Act.

Once again, we have taken another step towards becoming a police state. May I see your papers, please?

REAL ID In Its Death Throes?

Oh thank god:

“The ACLU, which opposes the plan on civil liberties grounds, says that the many changes made since the Act was passed [in 2005] nearly ‘negate the original intent of the program.’ ‘DHS is essentially whittling Real ID down to nothing… all in the name of denying Real ID is a failure,’ said ACLU senior legislative counsel Tim Sparapani. ‘Real ID is in its death throes, and any signs of life are just last gasps.'”

I am very glad to hear this. I only hope it’s true.

UPDATE: In case you were living under a rock, here’s all my previous posts on this subject, in case you need to bring yourself up-to-speed.