Identifying With DHS

Department of Homeland Security struck a balance between caution and flexibility in its personal ID plan

It's a complicated thing, this feeling I have about identity. On the one hand, I think that any system purporting to accurately identify someone should do just that. Whether we're talking about authentication for a computer network or a driver's license, an ID system should be positive and hard to spoof. With that said, I don't want to have to show ID any more than absolutely necessary. I like single sign-on for computer systems, and I think that in the course of an average day, no one should need more than my word and a handshake about just who I am.

These conflicting feelings are common among U.S. citizens. Add technological issues and you have plenty of reasons to be cautious about radical changes to the way we implement our most common ID systems. The Real ID Initiative, coming out of the wide range of responses to the attacks of 9/11, was intended to make driver's licenses more reliable as a form of ID.

At various times, it was suggested that the cards encode biometric information, such as a fingerprint, that they carry additional personal data in the form of an RFID chip. There was also the suggestion that state driver's licenses become a de facto national ID card, with the state data bases linked into a national system controlled by one or another federal government agency. Predictably, some states loved the idea while others were strongly opposed.

The proposed standard has now been released, and I have to say I think they got the broad outline right. (See Homeland Security Issues Specs for Controversial Real ID.) Using a barcode rather than RFID makes it impossible for someone to snag your personal information while the card is still in your wallet. I'd have been somewhat happier with a 3D barcode, rather than the 2D system called for, but that's a nit. By declining to mandate technology that's not currently up to the job, the DHS has shown uncommon sanity in what has been, and will be, a contentious process.

They got it even better by not disallowing RFID and biometrics from state licenses. If a particular state feels the need for either of these technologies and wants to work with suppliers to build a next-generation ID system that doesn't threaten the privacy of its citizens, no one at DHS is saying no. A state makes a far better laboratory than does a nation, and I'm sure that some states will forge ahead. When they do, they'll help build a better system that can ultimately be adopted by other states. Just look how well the touch-screen voting system rollout has worked.

The touch-screen voting experience is a good reason for DHS to have been quite conservative here. It's important not only that the ID system work, but that the citizens have confidence in its operation. I think most of us want meaningful identification systems, but we don't want to risk ending up with something worse than we have now. DHS has answered the concerns with a well conceived proposal.

— Curt Franklin is an enthusiastic security geek who used to be one of the Power Rangers (the red one, we think). His checkered past includes stints as a security consultant, an IT staffer at the University of Florida, security editor at Network Computing, chief podcaster for CMP Technology, and various editorial positions at places like InternetWeek, Byte, and Hog Monthly. Special to Dark Reading.

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