Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Big brother’s contractor is watching you

Posted by metaphorical on 12 January 2007

Longtime privacy activist Bill Scannell reports that “the Department of Homeland Security plans to outsource REAL ID implementation to third-party data aggregators, according to official DHS documents.”

Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005. It requires the states to issue IDs that meet federal requirements, spelled out in the Act, having to do with things like measures to prevent counterfeiting, as well as how people establish their identities in getting those IDs. In practice, the driver’s license will be the main form of “federally approved ID.” In turn, such a federally approved ID card will have to be shown “to board an airplane, open a bank account, collect Social Security payments, or take advantage of nearly any government service,” according to an FAQ at New.com.

Scannell reports:

According to a still-secret several hundred-page dossier sent last week by DHS to the Office of Management and Budget, DHS considered three ways to implement the REAL ID Act:

  • Plan A: Order the individual states to find a way of communicating data to one another. This idea was given short shrift by DHS, who dismissed it out of hand.

  • Plan B: Have DHS build a centralized database for the states to query before issuing REAL ID-compliant drivers licenses. This idea was also rejected.

  • Plan C: Have a private data aggregator act as the central database. This is the plan advocated by DHS. The plan calls for the outsourcing of all drivers license and ID card checks to a private corporation, who would then charge the states for each check performed. DHS head Michael Chertoff personally ordered this option to be chosen, according to a senior administration source.

There are a few problems with this. Under plan A, our personal ID information would remain with the state, shared with other states on an as-needed basis. Under plan B, our information would be held by our state and the federal government. In either case, a variety of privacy laws would apply.

Once the government is getting the information from a private company, Scannell notes, different, more lax laws apply, as they do when the government gets information from commercial databases like Acxiom and ChoicePoint. (One of those two companies may well be the private company ultimately selected for REAL ID.)

Driver’s license data is already fairly widely available and commercialized. It isn’t, though, aggregated in one place. And it may come to involve a lot more data—perhaps the data in the documents that you use to get the driver’s license in the first place. In general, it’s bad enough that these commercial data companies hang on the periphery of the nation’s various ID systems, nibbling up bits of data as they fall off of them. But this scheme places them at the center of the biggest identity database of all. As Scannell says,

If it’s possible to create a scheme worse than a national ID card, this is it: a privatized National ID card.

Fortunately, as a GovExec story reports, at least one state is on the verge of rejecting the REAL ID Act.

A bill authored by Montana state Rep. Brady Wiseman would direct the state’s Justice Department not to implement the law. The proposal has been referred to the state House Judiciary Committee.

According to Wiseman’s bill, REAL ID is “inimical to the security of the people of Montana, will cause unneeded expense and inconvenience to those people, and was adopted by the U.S. Congress in violation of the principles of federalism contained in the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

That’s reassuring. Even in Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother was the state itself, not some company to which it outsourced its totalitarianism.

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