IDs and the Illusion of Security
San Francisco Chronicle
February 3, 2004
In recent years there has been an increased use of identification checks as a security measure. Airlines always demand photo IDs, and hotels increasingly do so. They're often required for admittance into government buildings, and sometimes even hospitals. Everywhere, it seems, someone is checking IDs. The ostensible reason is that ID checks make us all safer, but that's just not so. In most cases, identification has very little to do with security.
Let's debunk the myths:
First, verifying that someone has a photo ID is a completely useless security measure. All the Sept. 11 terrorists had photo IDs. Some of the IDs were real. Some were fake. Some were real IDs in fake names, bought from a crooked DMV employee in Virginia for $1,000 each. Fake driver's licenses for all 50 states, good enough to fool anyone who isn't paying close attention, are available on the Internet. Or if you don't want to buy IDs online, just ask any teenager where to get a fake ID.
Harder-to-forge IDs only help marginally, because the problem is not making sure the ID is valid. This is the second myth of ID checks: that identification combined with profiling can be an indicator of intention.
Our goal is to somehow identify the few bad guys scattered in the sea of good guys. In an ideal world, what we would want is some kind of ID that denotes intention. We'd want all terrorists to carry a card that says "evildoer" and everyone else to carry a card that said "honest person who won't try to hijack or blow up anything." Then, security would be easy. We would just look at people's IDs and, if they were evildoers, we wouldn't let them on the airplane or into the building.
This is, of course, ridiculous, so we rely on identity as a substitute. In theory, if we know who you are, and if we have enough information about you, we can somehow predict whether you're likely to be an evildoer. This is the basis behind CAPPS-2, the government's new airline passenger profiling system. People are divided into two categories based on various criteria: the traveler's address, credit history and police and tax records; flight origin and destination; whether the ticket was purchased by cash, check or credit card; whether the ticket is one way or round trip; whether the traveler is alone or with a larger party; how frequently the traveler flies; and how long before departure the ticket was purchased.
Profiling has two very dangerous failure modes. The first one is obvious. Profiling's intent is to divide people into two categories: people who may be evildoers and need to be screened more carefully, and people who are less likely to be evildoers and can be screened less carefully.
But any such system will create a third, and very dangerous, category: evildoers who don't fit the profile. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Washington-area sniper John Allen Muhammed and many of the Sept. 11 terrorists had no previous links to terrorism. The Unabomber taught mathematics at UC Berkeley. The Palestinians have demonstrated that they can recruit suicide bombers with no previous record of anti-Israeli activities. Even the Sept. 11 hijackers went out of their way to establish a normal-looking profile; frequent-flier numbers, a history of first-class travel and so on. Evildoers can also engage in identity theft, and steal the identity -- and profile -- of an honest person. Profiling can result in less security by giving certain people an easy way to skirt security.
There's another, even more dangerous, failure mode for these systems: honest people who fit the evildoer profile. Because evildoers are so rare, almost everyone who fits the profile will turn out to be a false alarm. This not only wastes investigative resources that might be better spent elsewhere, but it causes grave harm to those innocents who fit the profile. Whether it's something as simple as "driving while black" or "flying while Arab," or something more complicated such as taking scuba lessons or protesting the Bush administration, profiling harms society because it causes us all to live in fear...not from the evildoers, but from the police.
Security is a trade-off; we have to weigh the security we get against the price we pay for it. Better trade-offs are to spend money on intelligence and analysis, investigation and making ourselves less of a pariah on the world stage. And to spend money on the other, nonterrorist security issues that affect far more Americans every year.
Identification and profiling don't provide very good security, and they do so at an enormous cost. Dropping ID checks completely, and engaging in random screening where appropriate, is a far better security trade-off. People who know they're being watched, and that their innocent actions can result in police scrutiny, are people who become scared to step out of line. They know that they can be put on a "bad list" at any time. People living in this kind of society are not free, despite any illusionary security they receive. It's contrary to all the ideals that went into founding the United States.
Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.
Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..