Here comes the US ID-card push

For a while now, I’ve been wondering why the US didn’t attempt to push for a national biometric ID card system in the wake of the 9/11 bombings.

Given reported statements from biometrics industry bosses about 9/11 being ‘what we’ve been waiting for’ and so on, one might have expected there to be a major effort in this direction but officially, as Zureik and Hindle (2004) point out, the International Biometrics Industry Association (IBIA) was relatively cautious in its post-9/11 press work, although it argued that biometrics had a major role to play in the fight against terrorism. Even the 9/11 Commission didn’t recommend a national ID card scheme, instead limiting itself in its final report to In its final report, to recommending a “biometric entry-exit screening system” for travelers in and out of the USA.

Part of this is because of the uneasy relations between the federal government and states governments, and suspicion of the former from the latter, and particularly from the political right has meant national ID cards have always been out of the question, even in an era of identification. So even though ID is frequently required in social situations, especially in dealing with banks, police and government agencies, the US relies on the ubiquitous driver’s licenses, which are issued by states not by the federal government. I remember from my time living in the US (in Virginia) as a non-driver, that in order to have valid form of ID, I had the choice of either carrying my passport or getting a special non-driver’s driver’s license, which always struck me simply as an absurd commentary on the importance of the automobiles in US life because, being young at the time, the nuances of federal-state relationships escaped me. And of course, passports won’t cut it for most, as less than 50% of US citizens have one.

So, if the apparently ubiquitous threat of terrorism was not going to scare states’ rights advocates and the right in general into swallowing the industry lines about security that they might usually have lapped up, what would? Well, the one thing that scares the right more than terrorism – Mexicans! More seriously, the paranoia about undocumented migrants combined with the spiralling cost of oppressive yet clearly ineffective border control (walls, drones, webcams, vigilantes etc. etc.) seems to have no done what the fear of terrorism could not, and inspired a push on both the centre and the right for ID cards – not that there’s much evidence that biometric ID cards will do a better job of excluding undocumented migrants, given that they do nothing to address what’s driving this migration – the demand for cheap, tax-free labour in the USA.

Today, not only the beltway insider’s bible, the Washington Post has an editorial demanding biometric social security cards for all (and a concomitant reduction in spending on hardening the border) following on from a cross-party senate recommendation, but also the Los Angeles Times, a paper which in the past has often been wary of the march to a ‘surveillance society’ – indeed it was the first major US newspaper to use this term, way back in 1970 as well as publishing critics like Gary Marx (see Murakami Wood, 2009) – has an op-ed arguing for a national ID card. The LA Times version, written by Robert Pastor, also claims that this is necessary to deal with voter fraud, a constant concern of the right and which always has a strong undertone of racism, so it’s unsurprising coming after a black Democrat has been elected as President for a second time in a tight election. Ironically, however, the President whose supporters are clearly the target of such attacks, has recently made it clear that he is also a supporter of a ‘tamper-proof’ national ID system.

No-one has yet made the international competition argument that is also so often used in these debates (‘if India and Brazil can do it, then surely the USA can’), but this debate is now ramping up in a way that even 9/11 couldn’t manage. Interesting times ahead…


Murakami Wood, David. “The Surveillance Society’: Questions of History, Place and Culture.” European Journal of Criminology 6.2 (2009).
Zureik, Elia, and Karen Hindle. “Governance, security and technology: the case of biometrics.” Studies in Political Economy 73 (2004).
(thanks to Sarah Soliman and Aaron Martin for the newspaper articles…)

Does the expansion of surveillance make assassination harder? Not in a world of UAVs…

Following the killing of Mahmood Al-Mabhouh is Dubai, allegedly by Israeli Mossad agents, some people are starting to ask whether political assassination is being made more difficult by the proliferation of everyday surveillance. The Washington Post argues that it is, and they give three other cases, including that of Alexandr Litvinenko in London in 2006. But there’s a number of reasons to think that this is a superficial argument.

However the obvious thing about all of these is that they were successful assassinations. They were not prevented by any surveillance technologies. In the Dubai case, the much-trumpeted new international passport regime did not uncover a relatively simple set  of photo-swaps – and anyone who has talked to airport security will know how slapdash most ID checks really are. Litvinenko is as dead as Georgi Markov, famously killed by the Bulgarian secret service with a poisoned-tipped umbrella in London in 1978, and we still don’t really have a clear idea of what was actually going on in the Markov case despite some high-profile charges being laid.

Another thing is that there are several kinds of assassination: the first are those that are meant to be clearly noticed, so as to send a message to the followers or group associated with the deceased. Surveillance technologies, and particularly CCTV,  help such causes by providing readily viewable pictures that contribute to a media PR-campaign that is as important as the killing itself. Mossad in this case, if it was Mossad, were hiding in plain sight – they weren’t really trying to do this in total secrecy. And, let’s not forget many of the operatives who carry out these kinds of actions are considered disposable and replaceable.

The second kind are those where the killers simply don’t care one way or the other what anyone else knows or thinks (as in most of the missile attacks by Israel on the compounds of Hamas leaders within Gaza or the 2002 killing of Qaed Senyan al-Harthi by a remote-controlled USAF drone in the Yemen). The third kind are those that are not meant to be seen as a killing, but are disguised as accidents – in most of those cases, we will never know: conspiracy theories swirl around many such suspicious events, and this fog of unknowing only helps further disguise those probably quite small number of truly fake accidents and discredits their investigation. One could argue that such secret killings may be affected by widespread surveillance, but those involved in such cases are far more careful and more likely to use methods to leverage or get around conventional surveillance techniques.

Then of course, there is the fact that the techniques of assassination are becoming more high-tech and powerful too. The use of remote-control drones as in the al-Harthi case is now commonplace for the US military in Afghanistan and Pakistan, indeed the CIA chief, Leon Panetta, last year described UAVs as “the only game in town for stopping Al-Qaeda.” And now there are many more nations equipping themselves with UAVs – which, of course, can be both surveillance devices and weapons platforms. Just the other day, Israel announced the world’s largest drone – the Eltan from Heron Industries, which can apparently fly for 20 hours non-stop. India has already agreed to buy drones from the same company. And, even local police forces in many cities are now investing in micro-UAVs (MAVs): there’s plenty of potential for such devices to be weaponized – and modelled after (or disguised as) birds or animals too.

Finally, assassinations were not that common anyway, so it’s hard to see any statistically significant downward trends. If anything, if one considers many of the uses of drones and precision-targeted missile strikes on the leaders of terrorist and rebel groups as ‘assassinations’, then they may be increasing in number rather than declining, albeit more confined to those with wealth and resources…

(Thanks to Aaron Martin for pointing me to The Washington Post article)

A juki-net footnote

I had a conversation yesterday (not a formal interview) with Midori Ogasawara, a freelance journalist and writer who used to report on privacy issues for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. This was mainly to set up further interviews with those who are or were involved with campaigns on surveillance and privacy issues in Tokyo. However I also managed to clarify a few of my own questions about juki-net and the opposition which it attracted.

In short, there seem to have been several objections.

  1. First of all was the objection to the idea of a centralised database, which was able to link between other previously separate databases.
  2. Secondly, there was the fact that this was the national state asserting authority over both local government and citizens. Both Local Authorities and citizens groups had argued for ‘opt-in’ systems, whereby firstly, towns could adopt their own policies towards juki-net, and secondly and more fundamentally, individual citizens could decide whether they wanted their details to be shared.
  3. The third objection was to there being a register of addresses at all. Many people saw this simply as an unnecessary intrusion onto their private lives, and in any case, the administration of welfare, education and benefits worked perfectly well before this (from their point of view) so why was such a new uniform system introduced?
  4. Next there were objections based on what was being networked. The jyuminhyo (see my summary from the other day) is not actually a simple list of individuals and where they live, but is a household registry. It might not, like the koseki, place the individual in a family line, but is still a system based on patriarchal assumptions, with a designated ‘head’ of the household, and ‘dependents’ including wives and even adult children.
  5. Finally, there was the question of the construction of an identification infrastructure. Whether or not juki-net is considered as an identification system, and it does have a unique identifying number for each citizen, and has the potential to be built on to create exactly such a comprehensive system of national identification. Lasdec, who we talked to the other day, may not approve of this, or believe it will happen, but they are only technicians, they are not policymakers and don’t have the power or the access to know or decide such matters. And in the end, if they are required by law to run an ID system then they will have to run it.
  6. There were, as I already mentioned, objections to the potential loss or illicit sharing of personal information. I don’t think this is intrinsic to juki-net, or indeed to database systems, but of course both databases and networks make such things easier. People are also quite cynical about promises of secure systems. Lasdec may say that that juki-net is secure, but there have been enough incidences of government data leaks in the past for people not to accept such assertions.
  7. Finally, Juki-net connects to the border, passport and visa system. The reason that foreigners will finally be included on the jyuminhyo (and therefore juki-net) from 2012 is not therefore to respond to long-term foreign residents’ requests for equal treatment but in fact to make it even easier to sort out and find gaikokujin, check their status, and deal with unofficial and illegal migrants. Groups campaigning for the rights of foreign workers (mainly the exploited South-East Asian and Brazilian factory workers) have therefore been very much involved. Of course it also makes it possible to connect the overseas travel of Japanese people to a central address registry.

I’ll be meeting Midori again soon, I hope, along with other researchers and objectors. I am also still hoping to be able to talk to officials from the Homusho (Ministry of Justice) and the Somusho (Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts & Telecommunications), but they are are currently passing around my request to different offices and generally delaying things in the best bureaucratic traditions!

UK travel database

Lots of media outlets today and yesterday reporting on the UK government’s e-Borders initiative. I’m not quite sure why particularly now: we’ve known about the e-Borders program – which is based around the new RFID-chipped passports – for some time. Of course the system involves collecting vast amounts of data, including rather more personal information than seems in any way necessary, like for example, travel companions – as if terrorists and criminals will obediently identify themselves by booking and traveling together!

For that is the justification for all this. On the website, Phil Woolas, the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration – another barrel-scraping appointment by a government that doesn’t really have many options for ministers now – said that this is is just about allowing ‘us to count all passengers in and out of the UK.’  But this isn’t just counting. What was a system derived in a combination of bowing to US demands after 9/11 and embarrassment over the government’s total inability to counter opposition criticism over immigration with any real facts has expanded its functionality (as with all of these systems) into something rather more comprehensive.

Woolas goes on to say that it ‘targets those who aren’t willing to play by our rules’ – tough talk, but it with the ever increasing numbers of trivial, silly and sometimes plain bad rules introduced by the current government, it’s hard to know what playing by the rules means anymore. This is a major problem for those who just accept all of this with a shrug and argue ‘nothing to hide nothing to fear’. I also wonder how long it will be before this database is hacked or details get left on a train or the whole thing is ‘lost’. Maybe I will start paying attention to Phil Woolas’s idea of the rules when his government starts paying attention to the European Convention on Human Rights, introduces some proper accountability and oversight for all these new surveillance initiatives as the House or Lords recommended, and stops losing our data and pandering to fear. Accountability, competence, ethics and rationality: it’s not much to ask from a government is it?

RFID chips readable ´from more than a mile away´

The important thing about RFID chips is not that they are the ´Mark of the Beast´ or any other such nonsense but that they are an appalling security risk

A story that has been circulating around the place over the last 48 hours, but which was originally in The Register on February 2nd, was the latest from Chris Paget´s valiant attempts to show that using RFID chips is just about the worst way to safeguard confidential information. This time he drove around San Francisco with a simple antenna and managed to read the unique number (which can be used to gain access to information on the US Department of Homeland Security database) from passports up to 30 feet (around 13m away), but he claims that with more powerful equipment, chips could be read from more than a mile (1.6km) away. There is also a very informative video on the site.

The important thing about RFID chips is not that they are the ´Mark of the Beast´ or any other such nonsense but that they are an appalling security risk…