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…)

New Privacy Survey released

Simon Davies, AKA Privacy Surgeon, and the London School of Economics have a great new survey of privacy predictions for 2013 out now. Key quote from the press release:

“More aggressive action by companies to monetise personal information through advertising will inevitably fuel further controversy, while consolidation of markets such as social networking may induce emerging players to engage dangerous privacy practices.”

Whether 2013 is the tipping point in this regard that the survey suggests or not, it is certainly the case that various ‘lines in the sand’ are being crossed on a regular basis at the moment and if the public aren’t as concerned as the experts surveyed for this report, then privacy may even lose even its tactical utility as a way of opposing surveillance, let alone mean the same thing to most people as it used to.

New UK report on the future of identity

There is yet a another major surveillance-related report out, this one from the UK, on Future Identities – Changing identities in the UK: the next 10 years. It is part of the UK government’s Foresight program, and is available from their website. Their other major current project is on the future of manufacturing. Although the cancellation of the last New Labour administration’s ID card scheme is not explicitly mentioned in the background it seems clear that this report was originally commissioned as a ‘what now?’ exercise – to open up a much wider debate. The Foresight project say this about the final report:
“This Report provides an important opportunity for the Government to consider how identities in the UK are changing and the possible implications for policy-making in the next 10 years. It has involved over 100 academics and stakeholders and is supported by 20 published evidence papers.
It shows that the economic downturn, the effects of globalisation, and increasing international migration have all been influential on notions of identity, while the impact of social media and modern communications technology have created a new digital UK. In particular the report discusses an emerging trend of hyper-connectivity and the ubiquity of the internet enables people to be constantly connected across many different platforms. The detailed findings of the report have implications for a wide range of policy areas and will support the design and evaluation of robust, innovative, open policy-making.”

Who gets Freedom of Information?

UK transparency campaigner, Heather Brooke, writes a comment piece on The Guardian website today on why she believes that UK university cancer researchers should have to give up information to transnational tobacco giant, Philip Morris. The basis for the argument is that Freedom of Information law should apply regardless of who the applicant is.

I generally admire Heather’s single-minded work on FoI, but single-mindedness is not always a virtue, and can sometimes lead to overly extreme conclusions which lack a broader understanding of the political economics involved. As in this case. As a researcher and analyst rather than a campaigner, I can see that there are three important counter-arguments to her piece:

1. Corporations are not people. There is a serious and ongoing battle here. Although legal incorporation means companies are often considered as legal people, we should not start to think of them as having ‘rights’ like individuals, not should rights that come from citizenship or by being an individual voter apply to them. Recently, the US supreme court rejected the argument of a large telecoms company that it had privacy rights. The worrying thing is that several lower courts had accepted that it could have such rights. Rather than providing corporations with more equivalences to human rights, we need to be holding corporations to account.  This brings me to…

2. The really important issue with large private companies and FoI is why those large private companies are not subject to the same kind of transparency. Corporate confidentiality makes no sense even in the context of liberal economic theory, however it makes even less sense if we think about FoI as a method of accountability. Corporations are unable to be held accountable via electoral processes and the markets are too diffuse and diverse (and spread across too many different countries) to work as a mechanism of accountability, so we need law that rebalances the power imbalances between corporations on the one had, and people, individually and collectively, on the other – through transparency. That is, after all, what is its main point when it comes to state transparency and FoI; it’s not really about ‘value for the tax payer’, it’s about power.

3. On that note, FoI is being increasingly used against academics and activists in particular as a form of intimidation by corporate interests. This is not to say that academics and activists should not be accountable, but it is not the case that all parties here of on a level playing field, and further, mechanisms of accountability are themselves not simply neutral or unequivocally always a good thing because of what they are supposed to do. Law has to embed intention, and be interpretable by the courts, in a way that clearly differentiates between legitimate use (for people holding organisations to account), poor excuses (as in the state claiming expense or lack of time as reasons for not releasing information), and blatant misuse of the law for purposes for which it was not intended. If it does not, it can simply become another method the intensification of organisational power against the interests of people.

David Cameron doesn’t get it

David Cameron’s speech in the House of Commons today and associated comments, show that he has a really superficial grasp of what has been going on in British cities, mostly whilst he was on holiday and unwilling to return to demonstrate any kind of leadership.

First of all, he’s done the usual knee-jerk authoritarian and technophobic thing of blaming Blackberry and other messaging services. He has indicated that “Ministers would work with the police and MI5 to assess whether it would be right to stop people communicating via social network sites ‘when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality’, and had “asked the police if they needed new powers in this area”. When the Egyptian government cut off access to social networking sites recently, western governments were quick to condemn this as evidence that this regime was exactly the kind of authoritarian government that should be brought down. However, in Britain, apparently not. And closing down communications systems just because some people are using them to send messages you don’t like is several steps beyond things like wiretapping. It is a massive and idiotic overreaction. Let’s hope the ‘assessment’ is, in the end, more considered…

Another face-palming moment was provided by the appeal to US experts in gang culture. Now, no-one is going to deny that there were gangs involved in this, nor that gang culture is an issue in British cities. But, first of all, the US is no place to look if you want lessons on controlling gangs, or more importantly, how to create a society in which gangs seem like a less attractive option in the first place. And secondly, there is an assumption that UK gang culture is just like US gang culture, just because they are both gang cultures. Why not look instead to other European countries without significant gang problems and ask what it is about those societies that work? Unfortunately that is the kind of question that would lead to fundamental challenges to UK socio-economic policy, and that’s exactly why the questions and responses will remain superficial.

These kinds of things will annoy the libertarian right and the left respectively, however at the same time, the UK Prime Minister is taking some strange stances that threaten to alienate his own centre-right supporters, in particular in refusing to halt cuts to policing budgets already proposed as part of his austerity measures (never mind massive cuts to social services to inner city youth, which will also be pushed ahead regardless).

It’s hard to see who remains that he is appealing to here…