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Perhaps you've watched "Person of Interest", a television program based on the fiction that the government has built a huge computer system that accesses every digital source of information in the country and integrates it all to assess national security threats. Such a system was pushed by that infamous enemy of human rights, Mr. Richard Cheney, while he was Vice President. Fortunately, his proposal was not acted upon -- we think.

But in the decade since Mr. Cheney proposed his scheme, something similar has been coalescing out of the cybersphere, for entirely innocent reasons. Our smartphones are now being equipped with services based on a knowledge of your location. You could ask your phone where the nearest Chinese restaurant was, and it would tell you where the five nearest ones were -- and provide reviews of each, if you asked. Systems like these are expanding, worming their way into our lives by offering useful information precisely tailored to your interests.

But there are two sides to this coin: the companies that run these services are also harvesting information about your behaviors, assembling monster databases of great commercial value. The goal is simple: to produce such a precise characterization of each owner that marketers can hit you with spam so perfectly matched to your needs that you'll appreciate it as useful information rather than spam.

All of this requires increasing integration of different sources of information, and that integrative process is well under way. Extrapolate this process another decade or two into the future and it should be possible for anybody to purchase an extremely detailed file on your personal life. Currently this information is being used for entirely innocent commercial reasons, but there's nothing to prevent it from being used for other purposes.

The Telltale Thumbprint
Now let's turn to another television meme, this one from Star Trek: the thumbprint used for identification purposes. If you wanted to buy something from Quark, you just pressed your thumb against his little techie-doodad, and , the transaction was signed and sealed.

The thumbprint is an ideal form of personal identification: fairly secure, unique, and convenient. Imagine a world in which we replaced all personal identification with thumbprints. No more credit cards, no more keys, no more passwords. No more mother's maiden name, first school you attended, name of the street you lived on as a kid, name of your favorite pet, or even deciphering those cryptograms to post your blog comment. It's not perfect, of course, so for high-security tasks we might add some other biometrics, but the concept is so much better than our current security systems.

Think about some of the benefits of such a system: identity theft would become much harder to pull off and easier to foil once begun. After all, if your thumbprint is used to purchase gas in Idaho 30 minutes after you bought a magazine in Arizona, it's pretty obvious that something is seriously wrong. If you're carried unconscious into a hospital, they don't have to make wild guesses about allergies, blood types, next of kin, or other such stuff: a quick swipe of the thumb and they know everything they need to give you appropriate care.

Uh-oh: National ID
Of course, these great services will only be possible if we establish a national identifcation system -- and that is anathema to progressives, who fear its abuse by government. The problem is, such a national identification scheme will creep in the commercial backdoor whether we like it or not. Commercial operations will want to integrate databases, and that integration will work smoothly only if some sort of standard identification is put in place. With Mastercard you have one identification number; your bank has another; PayPal a third, and let's not forget your Joe's Hardware Supersaver membership ID. It's only a matter of time before some enterprising chap comes up with a scheme for amalgamating all these different IDs into a single ID, so that another enterprising marketing chap can combine your Mastercard purchase history with your Joe's Hardware purchase history to find new ways to sell you things.

Indeed, such systems are already being developed in various forms. For example, suppose that PayPal equips millions of stores with thumbprint readers and permits payments with just a thumbprint. Meanwhile, it's buying lots of data about you from every other source it can, integrating that data, and selling database queries for it. It all makes perfect sense, because it's a win-win-win for PayPal, the retailer, and you.

So here we come to the irony: if we block a government-based national ID system, then we'll end up with a commercial-based national ID system, one over which we have absolutely no control. The government will be able to purchase any information about you, and you'll have zero rights in that process.


Grabbing Taurine Horns
It therefore seems necessary for us to take the lead on this, rather than playing catch-up after it's too late. We need to establish a national ID system based on biometric information.

Lots of other countries have done so or are doing so. India is implementing such a system; in that case, their motivation is to reduce the amount of corruption that plagues Indian society. About a hundred countries all over the world have national ID card systems. They include authoritarian states such as China, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, and Iran (not reassuring, that) as well as many liberal democracies such France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, and Greece. English-speaking countries, however, are reluctant to issue national identification cards.

The argument in favor of a national ID system that I find most compelling is its ability to provide only the information necessary for a particular action. If I have to present my ID to get into some venue, I don't have to let somebody know my home address. If my doctor needs to know whether I'm allergic to penicillin, he can get his answer without learning anything about, say, STDs.

There are, of course, lots of arguments against national ID systems, and I'm sure that many readers here already know them. All of the ones I have seen are slippery slope arguments; they acknowledge that a national ID system is per se unobjectionable, but it could be put to evil use. Certainly our experience with the Bush Administration supports those fears. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) at presents a huge amount of information on the debate over national ID systems. The most powerful argument, in my opinion, concerns "rogue access" to such a system for nefarious purposes. Hackers could break into the system and steal data or, worse, alter it. You don't find out until you're at the airport and they won't let you board because you're on the national watch list. Or, perhaps, an employee of the system takes advantage of privileged information for nefarious purposes.

I acknowledge all of these arguments, and readily admit their seriousness, but I think that the cat is already slipping out of the bag. Like it or not, there's already megabytes of information about you stored in databases ranging from to your dentist and yes, even Daily Kos. I'm sure that DK won't be releasing any of that information, but the commercial value of integrating databases is so great that we simply cannot sweep back this tide. It's happening.

So the real question here is this: do we want to assert control and standards for this process by making it a government-run system, or do we want to let it evolve naturally from commercial processes, without any input from the public?

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Comment Preferences

  •  McAffee was caught in Guatamela from GPS (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    coordinates embedded in a digital photograph.

    Notice: This Comment © 2012 ROGNM

    by ROGNM on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 10:26:02 AM PST

    •  Good or bad? (0+ / 0-)

      Here's an interesting question: was his capture by those technological means a good thing or a bad thing? On the one hand, I would argue that it was a good thing because a suspect in a serious crime was apprehended. But I acknowledge the counterargument that it could be a bad thing because it suggests that all of us can be tracked in this manner. Note, however, that this is a slippery slope argument, and that commercial operations could do exactly the same thing. Post a photo on Facebook while vacationing in Yucatan and 30 seconds later get an ad for Spanish lessons.

  •  We already have a National ID--it's called a (0+ / 0-)

    Social Security Card.  Now if we can tie that to voter registration...

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 10:48:43 AM PST

    •  SS Card is not secure (0+ / 0-)

      The problem with the Social Security card is that it is not at all secure. You can get such cards quite easily. It contains no confirming information at all -- no photo and no biometric information. There have been a number of proposals to add features to the card (photo and biometric, perhaps) that would transform it into a national ID card. So far all such proposals have failed in Congress.

    •  Actually our national ID is called a passport (0+ / 0-)

      And its about as secure as we can get.
      I'm not sure what the beef is against a national ID card, Ive had a passport since the mid '60s and I'd never give it up.  the gold standard in ID

      Happy just to be alive

      by exlrrp on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 06:06:47 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  That people relocate at will in the U.S. is a (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    great bother to bureaucrats.  It means their files are always out of date. That people are free to change their official names by just going to court is also a bother. Never mind that they can choose any name they want, as long as their purpose is not to deceive or defraud. And then the burden of proof lies with the authorities. Perhaps the most important principle in the U.S. system is the principle of probity. What people do comes with a presumption of good, unless and until there is proof of it being otherwise. In other words, individual behavior is presumed to be virtuous, which, of course, conflicts with the religious commitment to original sin--a commitment that justified the hierarchical arrangement of society. It is because people are presumed to be evil and in need of being made good that authoritarians can claim to be justified in telling others what to do. If, on the other hand, individuals are presumed to be equal and good, then there is no justification for ordering them around and authoritarians don't have a leg to stand on.
    Anyway, the effort to make people stay in place is bound to fail. Even the compromise effort of moving people into cages in the suburbs and requiring them to move around in circles in cages on wheels is proving increasingly unworkable. Young people raised in the suburbs and lured into the car culture from an early age, are abandoning the surburbs in droves and moving into the cities where, of course, they are much harder to control. Why? Because cities are geared towards pedestrians and people who perambulate on their own two feet and almost impossible to restrain.
    That is the lesson of OWS, by the way.
    Some people might have thought that the descendants of people who criss-crossed and settled a continent on foot had somehow lost the ability to perambulate at will. They were wrong. Humans don't move to avoid scarcity or distress. They move because they are mobile creatures. It takes a lot of effort to turn them into couch potatoes.

    There will never be a time when the majority of the human population stays in one place for a life-time. Trying to keep people in place is a waste of time and effort. Indeed, the whole notion that any species are territorial and that, if their territory is protected, they'll stay in place is bunk. All organic specimens are programmed to move.  Some do it as individuals; others do it generationally. It makes sense. As resources are depleted in one place, organisms have to move somewhere else. Change is the only constant.

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 10:52:36 AM PST

    •  A good argument for national ID (0+ / 0-)

      The frequency of moving around is a good argument for a national ID system. Nowadays, if you move from one state to another, you have to go through all the bother of getting a new driver's license and changing your address information for everybody that uses it. And don't forget to register to vote in your new state!

      All this would be prevented by a national ID system; you simply inform the system that you're changing your address and the address is automatically updated. never needs you to advise them of your address; you simply authorize them to obtain your address from the national ID system.

      •  you have more trust in IT systems than I do (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        who wants so much info in one place, which is assumed to be right and is thus unchallengeable?

        and who wants lots of info in one place; if a person can read all of it, well they might - and they don't necessarily need to know it all.

        No, thanks.  It was almost a vote loser for our last government (yes, even more than the involvement in Iraq!) and I can't see it coming back in.  Yes people ignore the commercial realities of smart cards etc, but governmental-runl ID is OUT.

        •  OK, if you'd prefer commercial national ID (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          The key point here is that huge volumes of personal information are already available commercially, and the volume and integration of that data is rapidly increasing. You may not want that information to exist, but it already exists, and is growing.

          •  And much of it is wrong. The bigger a system gets, (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            the more error-prone. Which is why I don't worry about it. The reason we presume people are honest is because the opposite is too complex to address. Efforts to do so end up with what I call "looking for needles in haystacks before they are built." Some things really are impossible and other things aren't worth doing, unless you're an obsessive compulsive.

            We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

            by hannah on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 11:34:02 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  commercial ID would be challengeable (0+ / 0-)

            and judging from my spam email, the work is only in progress....

            Or is there a logic in sending a UK-resident vegetarian info on COBRA, and good places for buying steak in Australia?  The internet is a blunt tool.  Even my usual supermarket is off target more often than not; Amazon has a very short memory.  ETC  

            Anyway, don't give in so easily!

            •  Hmm... (0+ / 0-)

              First, the kind of screwups you describe are precisely what motivate marketing people to push for (and be willing to pay for) more integrated information. After all, if some company wants to sell steaks, it would certainly help them to know whether a potential sales contact is a vegetarian. That's our problem: the more that sellers know about us, the better they can constrain their advertising to really useful things. They make more money that way, and consumers get less spam. The economic incentives are too strong to ignore. This kind of thing will be happening, and soon.

              I don't think we'll be able to correct such information as readily as we could correct information under government control. A government system could include a clear statement of your rights; a commercial system will respond only to things that outrage large numbers of people.

              •  Wrong. The way it would actually work is you (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Sue B

                either authorize Amazon access to the national id database or you don't and if you do then they have everything in it including every place you have been (via cell phone GPS tracking) and your entire purchase history everywhere.

                You have watched Faux News, now lose 2d10 SAN.

                by Throw The Bums Out on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 12:02:28 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  Not if competently done (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:

                  Sure, a national database could be designed to give Amazon access to your entire life, but my whole point is that if we implement it as a government database, we can specify that Amazon gets only what it needs. If we do nothing and that database is a private operation, they'll sell Amazon everything about you.

                  •  And how do you define that? Remember, there (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    Sue B

                    have been several attempts at an EU style data protection act which have failed.  Do you really think that Amazon and other companies will settle for anything less than full access to your entire life?  No, no such database until there is an EU style data protection act that prohibits companies from doing shit like that (and no slipping into the fine, black on black, print on page 35 either).

                    You have watched Faux News, now lose 2d10 SAN.

                    by Throw The Bums Out on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 12:15:43 PM PST

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  But it's already happening! (1+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:

                      You can complain all you want, but they're already doing this stuff, and right now it's perfectly legal. We could pass a law forbidding companies from acquiring data about your personal life, but that horse has already left the barn, and in fact whole herds of horses are already out. I agree that we should have some sort of personal data protection law, but it would be easier to implement and MUCH easier to enforce if the data were in government hands.

                      •  No, if you create the database before (or at) the (0+ / 0-)

                        same time as the data protection law then should the data protection law be struck down as Unconstitutional (freedom of speech, presumably) the database would be wide open.  The point is, get protections first and make sure they are upheld, then create the database.  You can argue that it is happening now all you want but a government database would just speed up the process and without strong protections (including a private right of action with significant statutory damages that is not subject to arbitration) you would end up even worse off.  It seems like you are in a hurry to create the database now and worry about privacy protections later (and later will most likely mean never).

                        You have watched Faux News, now lose 2d10 SAN.

                        by Throw The Bums Out on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 12:46:14 PM PST

                        [ Parent ]

                        •  That's why we need to act NOW! (0+ / 0-)

                          You're absolutely right, and you've hit upon the whole point of this essay: if we just sit on our butts and try to block a national ID law, then we'll end up with a de facto national ID system that is in private hands, and over which we have no control whatsoever. Much better to enact the controls and then build the system that meets those requirements.

      •  It won't work, but it will provide a lot of (0+ / 0-)

        business for the people hawking photographic and card making systems. What I want to know is how come all these proponents of risk and free enterprise are constantly looking for a captive market and guaranteed income stream. It's not just the electronics industry that's got this bad habit. But, they are most obvious.
        Just look at all the abandoned truck weight and inspections stations along our highways. What a waste of time and energy those represent. Not to mention that now we're left with areas that attract travelers to deposit garbage and other detritus. Of course, our representatives in Congress who authorize all these programs don't see the waste because they only fly over the country.

        We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

        by hannah on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 11:29:19 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Why do you say it won't work? (0+ / 0-)

          It has already been done in about a hundred countries. The system in India uses biometric information and is quite ambitious. Why do you say it won't work?

          •  Ah yes, while India is busy collecting information (0+ / 0-)

            it's farmers are killing themselves by the thousands because their engineered crops are leading them to starvation.

            We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

            by hannah on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 11:37:23 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  The system in india isn't trying to be a one stop (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Sue B

            database that replaces all of your credit cards (and thus has everything you have ever purchased, even in cash as if you pay cash you will still be required to show ID) as well as containing a detailed description of your every move (via GPS).

            You have watched Faux News, now lose 2d10 SAN.

            by Throw The Bums Out on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 12:03:35 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  Irony! (0+ / 0-)

    While reading the comments, I just got a pop-up survey asking me a few simple questions about my Internet usage. Even DK takes advantage of the opportunity to make a few bucks by selling personal information. Of course, in this case, participation in the survey was strictly voluntary. But I think this is a great indicator of how valuable all this data is, and how pervasive the accumulation of such data is.

  •  The national ID (0+ / 0-)

    is an issue that both elements of the  left and the right in the political menagerie find themselves in an uncomfortable alliance.
    Can you imagine some camouflaged  festooned guy that's  lurking, fully armed, in the Idaho woods,  embracing a national ID or a left wing activist being open minded about a national ID ? I don't think either would be very supportive.
    I agree that any movement toward a national ID (which I feel is inevitable) should be a US government designed system.  However, if you are fans of the corporate “person” you will be disappointed with a system they design – I guaranty it won't be designed around the “benefit for the public” philosophy.  There is a huge vacuum in this area and it will be filled rapidly – who designs the system depends on the public.  This isn't an issue for reasoned debate it's an infrastructure that is basically in place already – the issue is who controls it – because national identification is inevitable.

    "If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them. Isaac Asimov (8.25 / -5.64}

    by carver on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 02:33:47 PM PST

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