Tech Industry

Do we need a national ID plan?

CNET's Washington watcher Declan McCullagh explains how a White House proposal for granting state driver's licenses has ignited a firestorm over whether it's an invitation to Big Brother. Also: Why angry tech activists went bonkers at the Commerce Department.

WASHINGTON--Brad Jansen, an analyst at the Free Congress Foundation, has long been a dogged opponent of national identification cards.

In April, Jansen told a Senate panel that a national ID means "a massive bureaucracy that would limit our basic freedoms." In the past, he and the Free Congress Foundation have teamed with the American Civil Liberties Union, forming an ad hoc coalition to oppose federal standards for driver's licenses.

So then why is Jansen applauding a new White House plan--while the ACLU is screaming bloody murder?

The White House proposal, released last week, says federal agencies should "coordinate suggested minimum standards for state driver's licenses." At first glance, that's pretty close to what the ad hoc coalition has long opposed.

But Jansen, the deputy director at the conservative group's Center for Technology Policy, says he's not worried. What's more, he says the liberal Electronic Privacy Information Center agrees with him.

"We are very much encouraged and gratified by those paragraphs (in the White House plan)," Jansen says. "We believe the ACLU got it wrong."

The White House document in question is part of President Bush's "National Strategy for Homeland Security." It bemoans the lack of "national or agreed-upon state standards for content, format, or license acquisition procedures...The federal government can assist the states in crafting solutions to curtail the future abuse of driver's licenses by terrorist organizations."

To the ACLU, that language is tantamount to setting a national standard for IDs. That's what the ad hoc coalition opposed in February, condemning efforts by motor vehicle agencies to press Congress to create a standard driver's license, to share more driver data between states, and to mandate techniques such as biometrics to "uniquely identify" each of America's 228 million drivers.

"I would say that we have a different interpretation of what the Bush administration is saying, which simply points to the fact that the Bush administration has been vague at best in its position on a national ID," says ACLU legislative counsel Katie Corrigan.

Corrigan says: "That language points to the fact that the Bush administration appears to support national IDs through the standardization of state driver's licenses. If I'm wrong, I'd welcome the administration to clarify exactly how they differ."

That's a reasonable position: The White House has never made an unequivocal statement against the scheme, and it's possible that America could edge toward a situation where the federal government devises an ID and orders everyone to carry it at all times. Most European countries already require just that.

There's already been talk in Congress about tying money for highways to the introduction of ID standards, as is already done with the setting of 21 as the legal minimum drinking age.
What's more, the federal government hands billions of dollars a year in transportation cash to the states. Corrigan notes that there's already been talk in Congress about tying money for highways to the introduction of ID standards, as is already done with the setting of 21 as the legal minimum drinking age.

On the other hand, the White House document stresses that the federal government is not imposing a "mandate" on the states and instead is offering "suggestions."

In addition, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators notes that four of the five hijackers who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon had fraudulent IDs.

"There are areas where it is appropriate and necessary for the federal government to get involved," Jansen says. "For instance, in Ohio they will give state driver's licenses to foreigners, but it is timed to expire with visa expirations."

"They say explicitly that this needs to be state-led," Jansen says. "They recognize the complexity of the issue, but they do not call for a uniform standard."

Protest redux: Angry tech activists upset at being excluded from a Commerce Department roundtable on anti-copying technology disrupted the meeting, we reported Wednesday. That article said that Phillip Bond, Undersecretary of Commerce for Technology, allowed the free software fans to speak briefly, but did not seem inclined to include them in a the next roundtable.

Bond phoned us Thursday to say he was "certainly open" to including representatives of New Yorkers for Fair Use in a future roundtable. Wednesday's meeting was the second in a series on digital rights management, with representatives from the Motion Picture Association of America, Walt Disney, the Recording Industry Association of America, Microsoft, Intel, News Corp., the Home Recording Rights Coalition and

Bond said he would hold a special public meeting solely to air concerns about fair use and related consumer rights, in addition to the existing roundtable series. "I explicitly agreed to include the New York fair-use group," Bond said, adding that he had stressed he would be happy to work with its members.

But Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation doesn't seem to agree. In an e-mail sent to CNET, Stallman said Bond "weaseled out of it by accusing us of trying to 'bully' him, but we never made any threats--those all come from his side."

We forwarded a copy of Stallman's complaint to the Commerce Department, which reiterated its invitation. "(Bond) is committed to having a seat at the table for New Yorkers for Fair Use along with other consumer groups as a follow-up," a spokeswoman replied.

"We put out a Federal Register notice for both the July and the December roundtables, and no consumer groups came to us asking to be invited. Now that a range of new voices is asking to be heard, we are honoring that request," she said.

But it's not clear how effective the efforts of Stallman and other activists to be included in the Commerce Department's discussion of digital rights management will be, as any new digital rights law must be enacted by Congress, not set by Commerce Department fiat.

What's more, James Rogan, another Commerce Department undersecretary, has been cool to a proposal by Senate Commerce chairman Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., that would forcibly implant anti-copying technology into electronic devices. "Before Congress rushes into the imposition of a legislative solution, I hope its members will grant more time for the free market to find its own middle ground," Rogan said in April.

Bush's national strategy" for homeland security had suggested standardizing driver's licenses. That sounded too much to Armey and his colleagues like a move toward a national ID card, which is why the bill limits the practice.
During a hearing in March, Republicans were far more hostile to Hollings' bill than Democrats. Viewing it as a sop to Hollywood, House Republicans have also condemned it, and the Bush administration is hardly likely to endorse Hollings' approach either.

Homeland privacy update: President Bush's plan for a Department of Homeland Security is nearing a vote on the House floor--with some pro-privacy changes.

On Friday, a special committee headed by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, approved the measure, clearing the way for a floor vote tentatively scheduled for the middle of this week.

As CNET reported earlier this month, the final bill will, at Armey's insistence, veer in a more privacy-protective direction than the White House initially had wanted.

Bush's "national strategy" for homeland security had suggested standardizing driver's licenses. That sounded too much to Armey and his colleagues like a move toward a national ID card, which is why the bill limits the practice.

It also adds a privacy officer for the Department of Homeland Security and prohibits citizen-spy programs like the "TIPS" informant plan concocted by the Justice Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

On the other hand, any Cabinet department that combines 22 agencies including the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and part of the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center will have unprecedented access to information on Americans and an unparalleled ability to collect it.

Copyfights: A new book titled "Copy Fights" hopes to untangle the thorny subject of what the U.S. government should do about copyright, fair use and digital piracy.

Published by the free-market Cato Institute, it includes chapters by Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., Mitch Glazier of the Recording Industry Association of America, and John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, all of whom spoke at a Cato conference last fall. (Disclaimer: I moderated a panel at the event and wrote the foreword to the book.)

Speaking of the folks at Cato, they're also organizing a book forum on Tuesday to talk about Internet governance. The guest of honor is Milton Mueller, a professor at the University of Syracuse and author of the new book, "Ruling the Root."

This week: On Monday, the Competitive Enterprise Institute will hold a forum on intellectual property. It's titled "Invasion of the Idea Snatchers: Defending Technological and Artistic Innovation," and starts at 8 p.m. in room 325 of the Russell Senate Office Building...The House will meet Tuesday to begin voting on two spending bills, one for the Treasury Department and the other funding intelligence-related activities. Yes, the second one is classified. An excerpt says it awards the "Director of Central Intelligence for fiscal year 2003 the sum of $XXXXX..." A Commerce Department group is meeting Wednesday to talk about export controls and encryption. Part of the hearing will be closed to the public, a notice says, for "discussion of matters properly classified under Executive Order 12958." President Clinton signed the order in 1995 to specify procedures for classifying information vital to national security.