May 17 2021

ACLU: “Digital IDs Could Be a Nightmare”

As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is soliciting proposals from vendors for how to put digital versions of drivers licenses and other ID credentials on smartphones, the ACLU has released a timely and insightful white paper, Identity Crisis: What Digital Driver’s Licenses Could Mean for Privacy, Equity, and Freedom, by Jay Stanley of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, along with an executive summary in the form of a blog post, Digital IDs Might Sound Like a Good Idea, But They Could Be a Privacy Nightmare.

The ACLU white paper links to some of our research and reporting and highlights many of our concerns with compelled identification, the REAL-ID Act, invisible virtual checkpoints, ID-based blacklists and controls on what we are and aren’t allowed to do, and the role of AAMVA and other “private” entities as outsourced, opaque, unaccountable, creators of ID “standards” that function as de facto laws and regulations that govern our movements and activities, but that are adopted in secret, exempt from the Freedom Of Information Act or other transparency laws, and lack basic privacy protections. or respect for rights recognized by the U.S. Constitution and international human rights treaties.

We encourage readers interested in these issues to read the ACLU white paper in full. But here’s an excerpt form the introduction to the white paper, framing the issue:

Identifying people is… an exercise in power. By making it more convenient to show ID and thus easier to ask for it, mDLs [digital “mobile drivers licenses”} will inevitably make demands for ID more frequent in American life. They may also lead to the routine use of automated or “robot” ID checks carried out not by humans but by machines. Depending on how a digital ID is designed, it could also allow centralized tracking of all ID checks, and raise other privacy issues. We might even see demands for driver’s license checks become widespread online. This would enormously expand the tracking information such ID checks could create and, in the worst case, make it nearly impossible to engage in online activities that aren’t tied to our verified, real-world identities….

Mobile driver’s licenses would arrive at a time when the role of identity and identity checks in American life has already been expanding. Until relatively recently, identity checks did not feature as prominently as they do today. Before an accidental plane crash in 1999, you didn’t need to show an ID to fly, for example, and if you had an airline ticket you couldn’t use, you could sell it to someone else. After 9/11, the highly questionable notion took hold that terrorist attacks could be thwarted by tightening up the standards for issuance of IDs. At the same time, conservative antipathy toward immigrants led many people who were normally skeptical of government mandates and the creeping bureaucratic regimentation of American life to embrace the expansion of identity systems. The post-9/11 effort to make driver’s licenses more secure was bungled by the congressional leadership of the time, who rammed through the poorly designed Real ID Act of 2005. That bill, which was passed with no hearings, debate, or testimony from state department of motor vehicles (DMV) officials or other experts and was attached at the last minute to must-pass emergency legislation, imposed a cumbersome and unnecessary system of identity and citizenship proofing on state DMVs.

In the years since, identity checks have increased in more and more places, from building lobbies to banks, voting booths, doctor’s offices, and employers. The TSA began building an enormous, misguided security infrastructure on the quicksand of identity-based security — trying to protect aviation by gathering information about people and pretending to know who is most likely to launch the next attack — an approach that also opens the door to bias and targeting. And identity checks are on course to further accelerate in the coming years as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pushes to fully enforce the ill-conceived Real ID Act over resistance by the states, and as facial recognition–based machines for automatically verifying the authenticity of physical ID cards enter the market.

Americans across the political spectrum have long resisted the idea of a national identity card, and Congress would probably never pass any measure labeled as such. But the nation is backing into such a system through state bureaucracies originally set up for a limited purpose: to certify who is competent to drive a car on the public roads. This backdoor ID system has been exploited and expanded by proponents of a national identity system who understand that calling it such would never fly politically….

Read the full ACLU white paper here.

2 thoughts on “ACLU: “Digital IDs Could Be a Nightmare”

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