Identity Crisis: How Identification Is Overused and Misunderstood

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Identity Crisis: How Identification Is Overused and Misunderstood

Jim Harper Cato Institute ISBN: 1-930865-85-6 288 pages $13.95 1-301-459-3366

We often quote Bruce Schneier’s dicta on judging policy and practice:

1. What problem is the policy or measure trying to solve?

2. How can it fail in practice?

3. Given the failure modes, how well does it solve the problem?

4. What are the costs, both financial and social, associated with it, and

flowing from its unintended consequences?

5. Given the effectiveness and costs, is the policy or measure worth it?

This approach seems critical to us in judging recent demands for increased use of identification. Thus, for example, one might look at the demands for identification before getting onto an airplane. Imagine that this policy had been in full force on 9/11. Would this have made a difference? No, because all the bad guys had perfectly legitimate ID.

At present there seem to be three forces behind the new identification policies.

The first is the political need to give the impression of doing something. Because of this, security theatre is often thought to be adequate because the question being asked is not related to security. Rather, it is related to the political need to be seen to be taking action, with intrusive – albeit fruitless – measures being most visible and thus most successful.

This carries over to the civil sector. In one recent case we went into a building where they had “high security” processes in place, where you had to leave ID with the security desk, visit verification calls were made to the person being visited, and your possessions were X-rayed. Our group’s possessions included knives, guns, personal defense sprays, batons, and a smoke mask containing a canister of some unknown gas (oxygen, its user might hope). All passed through even though all the weapons were clearly visible and elicited some comment, because the building knew that it faced no likely threat, but got an insurance break by having an X-ray machine. The what-problem-are-we-trying-to-solve question building management dealt with was lowering insurance premiums.

Another part, of course, is the assumption that bad guys are drooling idiots who will make no attempt to examine the system they are trying to defeat. Thus, many policies assume that a terrorist will fill in occupation as “terrorist” on forms handed them. This, of course, influences enforcement. In one recent case, a group (the leader of which had a diplomatic passport) was held up in INS for several hours because his four year old daughter’s name was on the terrorist watch list.

The most critical part of the rational for these increased demands stem largely from a lack of understanding of identity, and the distinctions between identity and authentication and authorization. It is to address this issue that we strongly recommend Jim Harper’s book Identity Crisis. It is our hope – as it is his – that if more people understood the concept of identity that its use might be more sensible.

It is not our intention to summarize how Identity Crisis addresses the broad area of identity: The book is a quick read, and you should read the whole thing, not a quick précis by us. The important thing to know is that there is strong demand for government increases in demands for changes in identification use, including looking toward a national ID card. This book gives enough information for a reader to understand why a national ID card serves no valid security purpose, though it may have tax and commercial implications of benefit to the issuing jurisdiction.

Because increased identification demands may have a drastically effect on civil liberties and privacy, and because changes in social policy and convention are difficult – almost impossible – to undo, this book is important, and should be read by everyone concerned with social policy.

The information in Identity Crisis will help you can ask and answer the questions that should and must be asked of these security policies and measures.

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