Government Should Not Rush to Massive ID Surveillance System, Says Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy

NEW YORK, Oct. 29, 2004 /U.S. Newswire/ -- Who's Who in Whoville? "Congress should not rush to legislate a massive government identity surveillance system under the press of a politically expedient deadline without considering alternatives that can meet legitimate law enforcement and national security needs while still protecting privacy," said K. A. Taipale, executive director of the Center for Advanced Studies and director of the Global Information Society Project at the World Policy Institute, at a conference in New York earlier today.

"There are many compelling reasons to improve means of reliable identification in the United States -- from fighting identity fraud to enhancing security against terrorist. Ensuring a government monopoly over identity is not among them. However, without much public debate, Congress is rushing headlong towards the creation of a national system of identification that has the potential to track an individual's movements throughout their lifetime -- a system that may or may not provide any security against terrorists but is guaranteed to diminish freedom for the rest of us unless we build in certain protections from the outset.

"Provisions in both the Senate and House bills to implement recommendations of the 9/11 commission create what the critics rightly contend is a de facto national ID card by proposing that federal agencies only accept state IDs that meet certain federal standards (even the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators admits that state driver's licenses are 'de facto national identification cards').

"The Senate bill goes even further, calling for 'an integrated screening system' which 'shall be designed to encompass an integrated network of screening points that includes the Nation's border security system, transportation system, and critical infrastructure or facilities that the (DHS) secretary determines need to be protected.'

"Identification systems tend to be self-proliferating. Once ID checks are common for boarding airplanes or entering government buildings, they become acceptable (or required) for lesser uses -- for example, boarding trains or buses, or entering stores. How long after the first attack in a mall or theater before checkpoints are established throughout American daily life?

"Combine these checkpoints with a provision in the House bill to 'store the lifetime travel history of each foreign national or United States citizen' in a government database (a provision that, for the moment, seems limited to border crossings and passports) and you have to wonder where it all ends.

"Indeed, the refrain 'papers, please,' will seem a quant archaic concern when biometric cards with RFID chips issued by the states on behalf of the federal government communicate wirelessly with checkpoints throughout daily life recording and tracking individuals and granting access to some and denying it to others.

"Is such a system of ubiquitous identity surveillance controlled exclusively by government likely to lead to improved security? Well, maybe -- but diminished freedom is certain. We can do better.

"Developing an identification system that allows for -- even encourages -- pseudonymous activity (sometimes also called 'escrowed identity') and multiple issuers -- including private industry -- could provide significant privacy protections while still allowing for legitimate means of identification for national security and law enforcement purposes.

"A pseudonymous identity is one that cannot -- in the ordinary course of events -- be associated with a particular individual. Pseudonymity is a form of 'traceable anonymity' based on legal, organizational, and technical procedures that ensure that the association of a particular identity with a particular behavior can only occur under specified and controlled circumstances -- for example, according to administrative or judicial due process procedures. Secure pseudonymous identification could be issued by multiple, competing government and certified private sector issuers, thus helping to ensure both privacy (no single control over identity) and the development of a market for secure identification that would promote ongoing technical innovation (no issuer monopoly).

"Many of us are familiar with using pseudonyms in the online world where nyms or aliases are commonly used for email, chat, and online discussion groups. If need be, and only with appropriate authorizations, law enforcement officials can (and should) have access to our true identity -- but we can still maintain a reasonable degree of public anonymity up to that point at which government has a legitimate reason to focus its attention on us. Most online users have multiple nyms registered with different issuers for different purposes. A government monopoly to issue a national ID card -- even if delegated to the states -- cannot ensure privacy and, worse, will result in a lowest-common-standards driven system of identification with little innovation and much bureaucratic waste and fraud.

"An alternative is possible. The use of pseudonyms and multiple trusted issuers would allow for socially anonymous identities to be used for many public purposes and activities, thus preserving personal autonomy for most purposes, but still allow for establishing true identity through some appropriate due process procedure for legitimate national security or law enforcement needs. Such a system could be used for authentication (to grant or deny access) as well as to provide accountability (tracing) yet still protect privacy by separating knowledge of behavior from knowledge of identity and keeping knowledge of both out of single control except pursuant to appropriate legal or administrative processes and safeguards.

"For example, by limiting the screening at a checkpoint to verifying a third party certificate for authorization, or to confirming that the real identity is not on a watch list by matching encrypted hashes, but not recording the transaction to a central database or revealing actual identity unless there were a match, such systems could provide significant security functionality without creating a complete travel history for any given individual not suspected of terrorism. However, if required, law enforcement with a legitimate, court authorized reason, could still follow, trace or reconstruct the history of any particular nym (or identity associated with multiple nyms) much like a 'roving' wiretap. Existing smart card technology can control which identity attributes are revealed and under what circumstances.

"Privacy fundamentalists on the left and right, of course, object to any system of identification -- even one based on pseudonymity -- as violating some perceived right to maintain absolute individual secrecy regardless of societal needs for assured identity in particular circumstances. But, for the rest of us, the rule of law and due process combined with technical and structural protections, would mean that the debate about systems of national identification would no longer be presented as a dichotomous choice between absolute secrecy on the one hand and ubiquitous government surveillance on the other.

"Liberty and security are not rivals to be traded one for the other in a zero sum game; rather they are dual obligations of civil society. Technology can help us maximize each without wholly sacrificing the other -- but only through informed debate during technology and systems development, by insisting on the maintenance of checks and balances, and by allowing for competition in the market for secure identification. Congress should not rush to legislate a massive government identity surveillance system under the press of a politically expedient deadline without considering the possible alternatives."

This statement was released as part of the Global Information Society Project's Program on Law Enforcement and National Security in the Information Age.


The Global Information Society Project -- -- is a collaborative research project of the Center for Advanced Studies and the World Policy Institute focused on information, communications, and technology policy.

The World Policy Institute -- -- at New School University is a research and education policy center that seeks innovative solutions to critical problems facing the United States and the world and has been a source of informed policy leadership for over 40 years.

The Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy -- -- is a private, non- partisan research and advisory organization focused on information, technology, and national security issues.


/ 2004 U.S. Newswire 202-347-2770/