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Obama Wants Internet IDs for Americans

January 8, 2011

Yes, you read that headline right: Big Brother Barak wants to create internet IDs for Americans.

Originally reported by the technology-focused CNET news, CBS News reported yesterday:

President Obama is planning to hand the U.S. Commerce Department authority over a forthcoming cybersecurity effort to create an Internet ID for Americans, a White House official said here [Stanford, CA] today.

As is usual with this administration, it was announced late on a Friday afternoon.  The gist of the CBS story is that this is no big deal and that it is much better to give the authority to the Commerce Department than to the Department of Homeland Security or the National Security Agency. White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt said it is

“the absolute perfect spot in the U.S. government” to centralize efforts toward creating an “identity ecosystem” for the Internet

Of course, the unstated assumptions are 1) that an identity system is needed and 2) that it is the proper role of the government to provide one. Let’s examine both of these questions.

The first assumption is that an identity system is need. This implies, of course, that an identity system does not exist. This is false. The Open ID Foundation has been in existence since 2007, and work on an Open ID standard began even earlier. In addition to Open ID, regular users of the internet will know that several other virtual identities, such as a WordPress or Twitter account, can be used in multiple ways. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said:

We are not talking about a national ID card,…We are not talking about a government-controlled system. What we are talking about is enhancing online security and privacy and reducing and perhaps even eliminating the need to memorize a dozen passwords, through creation and use of more trusted digital identities.

I like multiple passwords, by the way: compromise of one does not compromise them all. My question about the program is simply this: if we already have digital identities available to us which are not government-controlled, why do we need one controlled by the Department of Commerce? And if the Department of Commerce is running the program, how is that not a government-controlled system? CBS reports:

The Commerce Department will be setting up a national program office to work on this project, Locke said.

The idea is that such an identity is for our own convenience–ever heard that one before? Also, it’s optional. For now, at least. It will fast become optional in the way that going through airport security is optional or having a drivers’ license is optional.

There is another reason why a government identity system is wanted and it’s the reason that a White House cybersecurity coordinator is involved. It is about allowing the government to know who you are at all times on the internet, for security reasons. Since we allow the TSA to grope or irradiate us in the millions every day in the name of security, why wouldn’t we allow the government to know who we are on the internet? What do you have to hide, Citizen?

The second assumption is that it is the proper role of government to provide such an identity, given that one is needed. I hope I’ve shown that is not needed in the first place; even if it were, the internet is not subject to government regulation, despite the FCC’s power grab last month.

Even if I believed that government-provided digital identities would make me somehow safer online from the threat of cyber terrorists–whatever that means–or the inability to keep my passwords straight, I am less and less trusting of a government that is more and more willing, even eager, to curtail my civil liberties in the name of doing it for my own good.

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