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Judiciary Summary

Identification Cards: CPSR Presentation to Calif. State Assembly Judiciary Committee

Working Groups
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

Proposed Identification Schemes Should Be Carefully Evaluated

Prepared for California State Assembly Judiciary Committee

Author: Lenny Siegel

Presented by: Chris Hibbert

Additional Contributors: Peter Neumann, Jeff Johnson, Paul Czyzewski

January 8, 2002

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Executive Summary

Since September 11, vendors of high-technology systems and others have proposed or dusted off proposals for new or enhanced national identification schemes. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), a public-interest alliance of computer scientists and others concerned about the impact of computer technology on society, has reviewed those proposals. We have concluded that none of the proposed national identification schemes clearly states which problem it tries to solve and how exactly it contributes to reducing the danger of terrorism.

Furthermore, we find that national identification schemes can increase the likelihood of identity theft, enable the spread of misinformation, undermine personal privacy, misuse limited resources, and create a false sense of security. While we are reluctant to give up individual rights to bolster security, we warn that there is no reason to assume that identification schemes that threaten privacy will be protective.

California officials, like those in other states, should play a key role in the evaluation of such proposals, because state-issued drivers' licenses and identity cards today perform many of the functions proposed for the new identity schemes. By moving forward carefully, California can protect its residents from the threats to both our both physical safety and our Fourth Amendment right to be secure in our "persons, houses, papers, and effects." We believe the following three principles should guide the review of proposals for enhanced identify schemes.

  1. It is essential to consider the functions and objectives of an identity scheme before considering which technologies are most appropriate. Proponents of enhanced identification schemes say they are required to prevent future terrorist attack, but a national identification scheme would not have prevented the September 11 attacks. The overwhelming majority of the hijackers were in the US legally and had no record with the FBI or other security agency. Evidence suggests that they made no effort to conceal their identities. Several of the hijackers had state-issued ID cards with their pictures and names. Therefore, simple authentication checks prior to boarding the plane would have not have revealed anything that would have aroused the suspicions of authorities.
  2. Building more complex and universal identity schemes increases the likelihood of deliberate or accidental error and abuse. Complex schemes serve multiple functions. For example, drivers' licenses are commonly used as proof-of-age for purchasing alcoholic beverages. That increases the incentive for developing means of forging documents that allow unqualified people to drive. More universal schemes -- those that significantly increase the number of data records (people) or access points (terminals) -- make it much more difficult to verify information in the system.
  3. New biometric technologies, most of which digitize personal physical characteristics, are more appropriate for small, special-purpose identity schemes than society-wide, general-purpose ones. That is, proving that someone is who he/she claims to be enhances security when you have a relatively small number of people who have approved access to facilities or information because their backgrounds are known and trusted. It is not as effective if one is dealing with a global population of millions of people who may or may not be represented in the database and whose background is not known.


In conclusion, CPSR believes that information technology can be used to address problems ranging from foreign-based terrorism to tax evasion to drunk driving. However, the technology should be tailored to solve each problem. National and other general-purpose enhanced identification schemes are unlikely to provide satisfactory solutions, and are much more likely to facilitate the erosion of our civil liberties and property rights.

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