Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Astrologers and National ID Cards

I often hear folks who believe in astrology saying things like “That’s just the scorpio in her.” Or, “All Leos act that way.” I rarely hear them say “That’s so unlike a scorpio.” Underlying this is a mind-set which searches for ‘evidence in favor’ of a proposition. This search is a fundamental, and common, misunderstanding of the scientific method. The scientific method is all about disproving hypothesis. A good, real experiment (as opposed to a demonstration or teaching exercise) has the capability to show that a theory is wrong in some way, or some set of circumstances which the experimenter creates. A good experiment does this by saying “If the two spheres fall at the same rate, then gravity can’t affect heavier objects more.” The search for evidence that contradicts what you’d like to believe underlies good science.

There are a number of folks commenting here with anecdotes or ideas that lead one to think “A national id card would be a good thing: Look at all the problems it solves.” Frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn. I believe that ID cards would provide a number of superficial, short term benefits, in exchange for substantial long term damage to our liberty, security, and privacy.

I believe that the damage to liberty and privacy are so obvious that I don’t need to belabor them. The damage to security may be harder for some to see, and comes in both small and large ways. The large ways are that a nation that chooses to lock up or perhaps murder its citizens needs a database to work from. National ID cards have been used extensively for this purpose. To those who say it can’t happen here, I’ll simply point out that neither could torture, nor could our government lock people up for three years without evidence, nor would we ever herd members of an ethnic group into camps, and appropriate their property.

Smaller damage to security comes from the card being declared Trustworthy, perhaps even by law. That is, no one who relies on a National ID card, or the data attached to it, to extend you a loan, assess your qualifications or eligibility for a job, or access your arrest record will ever be found liable for negligence. It will be easier to trust the card and the report than to assess the person in front of you. After all, the National ID card was present; the records are going to be presumed correct. (If they’re not, what’s the point of the system?)

But the increasing need for such cards increases the incentive to induce fraud at the issuer level. Such fraud is usually not perpetrated with malicious intent; it’s perpetrated by someone who would like to pursue the American dream. A hundred years ago, many of these people would have walked across the border and found honest work. Today, they have to commit a variety of crimes. You can sputter and foam disagreement here. You can confuse malum in se and malum prohibitum all you’d like. But at the end of the day, there are a great many people who either feel this way, or are willing to take $100 and console their conscience with such an argument.

Schneier has offered a five part test of a new security system:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve?
  2. How well does this measure solve the problem?
  3. What other security problems does the measure cause?
  4. What does the security measure cost?
  5. Given the answers to steps two through four, is the security measure worth the costs?

He even uses national ID cards as an example of a system that don’t clearly answer question 1. And so, if you’d like to argue for a national ID card, please do so. But please don’t do so like an astrologer. Make your arguments like a scientist, and be honest enough to address the other side’s points, rather than simply declaring that you like the idea.

7 comments on "Astrologers and National ID Cards"

  • To ID Card Or Not To ID Card

    I am iving in a country where ID cards and registration with the town authorities are mandatory. I don’t find an ID card system as intrusive as Adam Shostack describes. This is due to several points. Let me try to explain:
    Our ID card system was i…

  • I’d like to take you up on this challenge but do it incrementally so as to make some progress (or give up realizing that this concept is without merit).
    To start I think we have been talking about two different concepts so I have been trying (in vain I believe) to articulate a new model or develop towards one.
    But first the problem I am trying to solve is the difficulty in (US citizens in particular) proving one’s identity which is unambiguous to those I choose to interact with. This may be merchants or governments. All previous indentifiers such as SSNs and credit card numbers lose their value to harm me in so far as knowledge or presentation of them no longer serve as authentication.
    Back to a new model. I agree with you that a ‘National ID’ is a bad thing IF you define it as something the government controls since the government is not responsible for my identity. Instead I suggest an ID which I own and control and may be recognized internationally. This ID is NOT an ID card. This ID is me (perhaps my unique representation of my DNA in some symbolic format). I was born with this identity and neither I nor anyone else can change it. And knowledge of that ID or symbol gives you no rights or advantages. I will control the usage of my ID in the eventual creation of a variety of tokens such as ID cards and certificates that represent me. In the past fingerprints have served in this regard, but fingerprints have been hard to consistently and accurately be represented symbolically. Perhaps newer biometric technology will be capable of resolving the subjectivity that has plagued the field, however fingerprints are not immutable.
    So far how am I doing?

  • On a tangent – about the ‘border crossers’ scenario you paint…
    I am all for increased immigration I believe it is critical to US survival and health.
    I believe what we are doing on the Mexican border is pathetic, both in terms of poor security and treating honest people like criminals.
    The problem with accepting anyone without knowing who they are, what their background is and what their real motives are is that we open ourselves up to very real and dangerous criminals. If someone is a real pedophile do you want them escaping from another country to find ‘freedom’ here so that they can prey on more children? If we know someone is a criminal due to political reasons we are certainly more than willing to dismiss those charges. If someone was a thief because their nation took away their rights, we can overlook that too. Certainly you can imagine cases that would be difficult to determine – but I am sure we would agree that most people do not fall into this category. Having references and knowing who their family was in ‘the old country’ would go a long way to determining their motivation. (We love immigrants that send their hard earned dollars back to their remaining family members [those that didn’t come with them] it builds good will between our nations.)
    But frankly – we don’t need to welcome other nations’ thugs, murderers, rapists and hate mongers. But if you come to this country, behave reasonably well and after a little while if you will swear allegiance we will give you citizenship. Let’s welcome people with dignity and offer respect and expect respect.

  • adam says:

    “The problem with accepting anyone without knowing who they are, what their background is and what their real motives are is that we open ourselves up to very real and dangerous criminals.”
    Yes. When someone enters this country legally, they need to produce a criminal record from their old country. So if we reduce the motive for people to be smuggled over the borders, we’ll catch such people. We don’t need police checkpoints at the corner or at the airport to catch them. We can see those police checkpoints being used to stifle free speech already.

  • My kids' Dad says:

    It’s about relationships, friend

    Business is about relationships and these relationships are built upon a degree of trust. Security functions to protect that trust. A list of links to discussions about identities and privacy.

  • Pete says:

    Are you sure you aren’t mixing the aspects of the scientific method and null hypothesis testing here?

  • Iang says:

    Having actually dealt with criminal records with various immigration authorities around the world (and never having done so with the US borders but I know a little about that game) I can suggest that most authorities and certainly most crooks recognise that this is a paperwork function only.
    If they weren’t to do it they would get criticised in the press. If they do insist on criminal records, it has one and only one effect: it slows down and makes more costly the immigration proceedings of those valuable honest people that you want. It has no bearing whatsoever on “detecting criminals”. It does in fact achieve the complete reverse of what one desires.

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