Identification cards no solution
by Felix Stalder & David Lyon

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a slightly edited version appeared in
Toronto Star, 31.10.2001 p. A30

People are anxious and pressure is on politicans to do something bold. National ID cards are high on the list of measures in Canada, and other countries, to reassure the public that security is being improved. By connecting everyone to a central database ID cards are supposed to make it more difficult for terrorists to operate undetected. Federal Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski and others have criticized such plans as endangering civil liberties by increasing surveillance and eroding privacy. This side effect is perhaps one of the reasons why so far only Malaysia -- not known for championing human rights -- has gone ahead with smart card IDs.

Hardly anybody disputes the validity of Commissioner's objections, but proponents of ID cards argue that there is an unfortunate but necessary trade-off between our desire for civil liberties and our need for security. As the polls show, right now a majority of Canadians is willing to make this trade-off and favours the introduction of ID cards. But would a new ID card system really increase our security? We think not. On the contrary, by relying on an unreliable measure, we create a false sense of security that might even make us more vulnerable.

Protection from what?

No security measure, no matter how sophisticated, can be successful without a clear sense of what it is supposed to protect from. So far, no risk analysis has been produced on which to assess the effectiveness of ID cards. It is clear that against the most recent attacks - biochemical agents distributed through the mail - such cards have no effect. But even for more traditional scenarios such as hijacking, the cards are not particularly effective. All such cards can do is to make it easier to check if the person represented on the card is wanted by authorities. If the hijacker has no criminal record -- and few if any hijackers have ever been known before the event -- the card is useless. In this sense, such cards are no more effective than plain old passports.

Weaknesses of ID cards

Are ID cards secure? While ID cards with new features such a watermarks and holograms are more difficult to forge than less sophisticated documents, forgery is not impossible. It has been shown repeatedly that even state-of-the-art smartcards can be compromised, the costs of which are currently estimated to start around $10,000. If the security features are software based, as they would be with smartcards, then any successful forgery could be easily replicated. Even if the proposed national ID card is not an embedded-chip smartcard, it is likely to contain some biometric device. The value of these body-based identifiers is similarly dubious although the chances of forgery are lower. In effect, new high-tech ID cards are a deterrent only to petty criminals, but for organized crime and international terrorism they could be a boon.

Forgery questions aside, can ID cards guarantee that individuals are identified accurately? Unfortunately, no more than any other document. Identity is established through a series of documents, each referring to another and ultimately dependent on the lowly birth certificate. All a criminal has to do to obtain a high security ID card is to present a fake, low security passport or birth certificate. Particularly for immigrants from less developed countries, establishing the reliability of such documents can be very difficult. This compromises the value of a national ID card, which can only be as reliable as the weakest link in the chain of documents on which it is based.

Are ID cards worth the trouble?

Given the systemic weakness of ID cards to achieve their goal - to reliably identify people and thus combat terrorism - one must wonder if they are worth the investment. Particularly if they include advanced features such a smartcards, the roll-out costs could easily run into hundreds of millions. Over the last 10 years, the computer industry, often in conjunction with banks, has repeatedly tried to establish large smartcard projects, virtually all of which stalled due to large costs and uncertain benefits. The recent, high-profile failure of the e-cash provider Mondex for exactly these reasons is but the latest case. National ID cards would be a perfect opportunity to get the public sector to relaunch smartcards that have failed in the private sector. Not surprisingly, among the most vocal supporters of such schemes are people like Larry Elllison, CEO of Oracle, a database provider, who offered free smartcard software to the US government a few days after September 11.

It makes certainly sense to replace the current, easy-to-forge immigration documents, as planned well before September 11th. But to expand this now into a comprehensive ID card scheme is attractive only to politicians wanting to show that they are doing something and to high-tech industries seeking major procurement contracts. For the general public, the benefits are much less clear. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that without credible evidence of their effectiveness, these cards are not only a threat to our civil liberties but also a waste of our money.

Felix Stalder is a Post-Doctoral Fellow and David Lyon is Director of The Surveillance Project, based in the Sociology Department at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario.