Thursday, May 19, 2005

Do-It-Yourself Slavery

I let this slide, but I probably shouldn't have. A couple weeks back, Geoffrey Styles called an Oregon proposal to install GPS transponders in automobiles and tax the resulting miles driven an "attractive" option to replace the tax dollars lost due to increasing vehicle efficiency. In the comments, I noted my displeasure with such a proposal -- which, combined with the recent and no-debate-allowed passage of the Real ID Act, sets up a system of surveillance the old East German Stasi could only dream of. The abuses of such a scheme are not only endless but cut to the heart of what a representative democracy is supposed to be about: does the state work for the people, or is it the other way around?

Clearly, the Oregonians proposing such a thing have no qualms about their system, but a belief in the state's ability to keep their hands off the data for other purposes is not only naive, but dangerous. We already have double secret no-fly lists, whose victims have included activists, as well as the notable submariner and Senator, Ted Kennedy. Geoff answered back to my objections that

For good or ill, we are embarking on an experiment in a new form of government: a representative democracy with a free press and plaintiff's bar, but in which the forces of law and order have more information about individuals than any police state in history. Our children will live in a very different country than the one in which we grew up.
But that will be true only if we let the government get away with it. The Real ID Act couldn't be passed on its own merits; to get it through, it had to be tacked on to an appropriations bill that had a 100% chance of passing (which indeed it did in the Senate, by a shameful 100-0 vote). There's still hope, though: this measure is expensive, and will require funding, funding which could be diminished or eliminated later on. A good thing, too, for as computer security expert Bruce Schneier recently pointed out, Real ID amounts to "a huge power-grab by the federal government" that in the final analysis is massively counterproductive to the ends it claims to further:

The REAL ID Act requires driver's licenses to include a "common machine-readable technology." This will, of course, make identity theft easier. Assume that this information will be collected by bars and other businesses, and that it will be resold to companies like ChoicePoint and Acxiom. It actually doesn't matter how well the states and federal government protect the data on driver's licenses, as there will be parallel commercial databases with the same information.

Even worse, the same specification for RFID chips embedded in passports includes details about embedding RFID chips in driver's licenses. I expect the federal government will require states to do this, with all of the associated security problems (e.g., surreptitious access).

REAL ID requires that driver's licenses contain actual addresses, and no post office boxes. There are no exceptions made for judges or police -- even undercover police officers. This seems like a major unnecessary security risk.

REAL ID also prohibits states from issuing driver's licenses to illegal aliens. This makes no sense, and will only result in these illegal aliens driving without licenses -- which isn't going to help anyone's security. (This is an interesting insecurity, and is a direct result of trying to take a document that is a specific permission to drive an automobile, and turning it into a general identification device.)

REAL ID is expensive. It's an unfunded mandate: the federal government is forcing the states to spend their own money to comply with the act. I've seen estimates that the cost to the states of complying with REAL ID will be $120 million. That's $120 million that can't be spent on actual security.

And the wackiest thing is that none of this is required. In October 2004, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 was signed into law. That law included stronger security measures for driver's licenses, the security measures recommended by the 9/11 Commission Report. That's already done. It's already law.

Schneier elsewhere rips apart the idea that national ID cards will do anything to help security, and in fact will serve to reduce it. Identification by itself is no security; Schneier rightly asks
What good would it have been to know the names of Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, or the DC snipers before they were arrested? Palestinian suicide bombers generally have no history of terrorism. The goal is here is to know someone's intentions, and their identity has very little to do with that.
Ultimately, the real danger with all such schemes is that they rely on the government to remain docile, or at least controllable. The risk really descends to ordinary, law-abiding citizens, who, with GPS-enabled cars and RFID-enabled drivers' licenses, could be tracked by the state at any time. That is to say, if the TSA can hassle and delay a Senator of the United States from getting on an airplane now, how much more dangerous will it be when the database implicit in Real ID incorrectly tags a mere citizen as a security risk?

The men who wrote the Constitution were a suspicious lot; caring not to trust governments, they chained theirs, dividing its authority so that ordinary men could be free, chattel slavery notwithstanding. To permit warrantless intrusions into everyday life is to lay the foundations for a police state. The cliché "if you build it, they will come" has never seemed more appropriate.