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Wednesday, April 17, 2002
Don't just sit there, Do Something
The Washington Post reports that Congress has begun considering legislation to create a national ID card. The proposal being considered would turn the driver's license into a de facto national ID, by setting federal standards for the design and content of driver's licenses, and creating some unspecified sort of national database for sharing the information.

The problem is, nobody -- at least nobody involved in actually writing the laws -- has exactly thought through what this is supposed to accomplish. Such a proposal could be very effective at stopping underage drinking, but is unlikely to be a significant obstacle for terrorists. There are many separate issues:
  1. Ensuring that the card is not a forgery.
  2. Ensuring that the information on the card is accurate.
  3. Ensuring that person with the card is the true owner of the card.
  4. Ensuring that the true owner of the card is "reliable."
Unless all of those are accomplished, "reforming" the system will solve nothing about terrorism.

Let's look at a situation like September 11th: Mohammed Atta presents an identification card at the airport in order to be allowed to board the plane. The airline check-in counter employee first has to verify that the card is genuine, by checking a nationwide database (just as merchants do with credit cards). Then the employee has to verify that the card belongs to Atta, by comparing his biometric identification to that on the card. (This means that his fingerprints or retina or the like will have to be scanned at the check-in counter. Further, this means that every location which will require identification will require this scanning equipment. Every police car will require it, for traffic stops.)

That seems to be as far as legislators have thought. But there's more: none of that will help unless the information provided at the time Atta obtained the ID card is accurate. What if, when Atta applied for his driver's license, he did so under the name Bubba Jones? The airline counter employee will verify that he's Bubba Jones, the owner of the valid ID card. Of course, it could be mandated that Atta provide proof of identify at the time he applies for the card -- but that simply shifts the problem one level. How do we ensure that this proof of identity is valid? Couldn't that be forged?

But suppose you find a way around that problem, somehow. Your whole expensive, high-tech system is still worthless, because Mohammed Atta could apply under his real name, using valid documents, obtain a valid ID card, and then go hijack the airplane. Unless you have reason to suspect him in advance, and a national database listing everyone suspicious, it doesn't do any good to identify him. And unfortunately, that last step, the hard part, has nothing to do with a national ID system at all. It has to do with foreign intelligence.

And of course, all that assumes that a civil servant can't be bribed. How much do people think Department of Motor Vehicle employees get paid, anyway? For a small (by international conspiracy standards) $50,000 payment, don't you think one could be persuaded to look the other way as an inaccurate license is issued?

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