Essays in the Category “ID Cards”
Security is rarely static. Technology changes the capabilities of both security systems and attackers. But there's something else that changes security's cost/benefit trade-off: how the underlying systems being secured are used. Far too often we build security for one purpose, only to find it being used for another purpose -- one it wasn't suited for in the first place.
Impersonation isn't new. In 1556, a Frenchman was executed for impersonating Martin Guerre and this week hackers impersonated Barack Obama on Twitter. It's not even unique to humans: mockingbirds, Viceroy butterflies, and the brown octopus all use impersonation as a survival strategy. For people, detecting impersonation is a hard problem for three reasons: we need to verify the identity of people we don't know, we interact with people through "narrow" communications channels like the telephone and Internet, and we want computerized systems to do the verification for us.
Let me start off by saying that I'm making this whole thing up.
Imagine you're in charge of infiltrating sleeper agents into the United States. The year is 1983, and the proliferation of identity databases is making it increasingly difficult to create fake credentials. Ten years ago, someone could have just shown up in the country and gotten a driver's license, Social Security card and bank account -- possibly using the identity of someone roughly the same age who died as a young child -- but it's getting harder.
National ID System Is Not Worth The $23 Billion Price Tag
The argument was so obvious it hardly needed repeating: We would all be safer if we had a better ID card. A good, hard-to-forge national ID is a no-brainer (or so the argument goes), and it's ridiculous that a modern country such as the United States doesn't have one. One result of this line of thinking is the planned Real ID Act, which forces all states to conform to common and more stringent rules for issuing driver's licenses.
But security is always a tradeoff; it must be balanced with the cost.
Many people say that allowing illegal aliens to obtain state driver's licenses helps them and encourages them to remain illegally in this country. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox late last year issued an opinion that licenses could be issued only to legal state residents, calling it "one more tool in our initiative to bolster Michigan's border and document security."
In reality, we are a much more secure nation if we do issue driver's licenses and/or state IDs to every resident who applies, regardless of immigration status. Issuing them doesn't make us any less secure, and refusing puts us at risk.
The state driver's license databases are the only comprehensive databases of U.S.
The argument was so obvious it hardly needed repeating. Some thought we would all be safer -- from terrorism, from crime, even from inconvenience -- if we had a better ID card. A good, hard-to-forge national ID is a no-brainer (or so the argument goes), and it's ridiculous that a modern country like the United States doesn't have one.
Still, most Americans have been and continue to be opposed to a national ID card.
This essay also appeared in San Jose Mercury News, Sacramento Bee, Concord Monitor, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Dallas Morning News, Contra Costa Times, Statesman Journal, and The Clarion-Ledger.
If you have a passport, now is the time to renew it -- even if it's not set to expire anytime soon. If you don't have a passport and think you might need one, now is the time to get it. In many countries, including the United States, passports will soon be equipped with RFID chips.
I don't know about your wallet, but mine contains a driver's license, three credit cards, two bank ATM cards, frequent-flier cards for three airlines and frequent-guest cards for three hotel chains, memberships cards to two airline clubs, a library card, a AAA card, a Costco membership, and a bunch of other ID-type cards.
Any technologist who looks at the pile would reasonably ask: why all those cards? Most of them are not intended to be hard-to-forge identification cards; they're simply ways of carrying around unique numbers that are pointers into a database. Why does Visa bother issuing credit cards in the first place?
In 2004, when the U.S. State Department first started talking about embedding RFID chips in passports, the outcry from privacy advocates was huge. When the State Department issued its draft regulation in February, it got 2,335 comments, 98.5 percent negative. In response, the final State Department regulations, issued last week, contain two features that attempt to address security and privacy concerns.
Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the Bush administration -- specifically, the Department of Homeland Security -- has wanted the world to agree on a standard for machine-readable passports. Countries whose citizens currently do not have visa requirements to enter the United States will have to issue passports that conform to the standard or risk losing their nonvisa status.
These future passports, currently being tested, will include an embedded computer chip. This chip will allow the passport to contain much more information than a simple machine-readable character font, and will allow passport officials to quickly and easily read that information.
This essay also appeared, in a slightly different form, in The Mercury News.
As a security technologist, I regularly encounter people who say the United States should adopt a national ID card. How could such a program not make us more secure, they ask?
The suggestion, when it's made by a thoughtful civic-minded person like Nicholas Kristof (Star-Tribune, March 18), often takes on a tone that is regretful and ambivalent: Yes, indeed, the card would be a minor invasion of our privacy, and undoubtedly it would add to the growing list of interruptions and delays we encounter every day; but we live in dangerous times, we live in a new world ... .
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.
Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.
Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Resilient Systems, Inc.