THE BLOG
05/16/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

ID Cards are Obsolete Technology

The notion that enhanced paper-based ID cards might solve such problems as employment of undocumented aliens, transportation vulnerability, or identity theft are based on illusions that yesterday's obsolete technology can be effectively used to solve tomorrow's problems.

The first illusion is that we can establish the identity of an individual with paper-based documents like driver's licenses, passports, or any other form of ID card. But the fact is that IDs are not worth the paper they are printed on. Efforts to make driver's licenses more secure with "Real ID" start by assuming continued use of obsolete technology when they should be asking what technology is appropriate to solve a larger problem. Proposals to expand use of IDs in other areas have the same weakness.

The science of verifying the identity of individuals by relying on paper-based technology is inexact at best. Any form of ID is subject to fraud or mistake in its creation, in its use, or in its review. It is unreliable when all concerned act in good faith, and near worthless when any act in bad faith, which is the main reason we have looked to IDs to begin with.

The second illusion is that some form of enhancement of these type IDs could make them work well. But the fact is that, if an ID is misused intentionally or inadvertently, it doesn't work, regardless of enhancement. It does not take a rocket scientist to recognize that the assassination of a Hamas terror chief in Dubai was not the first time passports have been used other than in the manner intended by issuing governments, but the liquor or convenience store down the street will be happy to provide less sensational everyday examples of misuse of IDs closer to home. There is no enhancement that overcomes the fundamental flaws of paper based identification documents.

The third illusion is that biometrics, the only reliable method to authenticate identity, will compromise privacy. But the fact is that whether we use a paper-based form of ID or biometrics to verify individual identity, the privacy problem is a function of the values that dictate how a society chooses to apply identification technology, rather than the technology chosen.

There are a number of biometric identifiers that are unique to each of us, such as iris and retina formations. These can be efficiently and unobtrusively scanned and categorized as data that differentiates individuals. The number and manipulation of these identifiers will only be refined over time, but the value of biometrics is as a means of identification, not to enhance ID documents.

Biometric identifiers are to the 21st Century what driver's licenses or passports were to the 20th Century, or letters of introduction were to other eras. External tokens of identity were once useful to establish identity, but these external forms of ID are no longer reliable and the only way to reliably establish our identity is through the use of the biometric identifiers that come with our presence, rather than by displaying symbols of identification.

When we enter the world outside home, we simply do not have the same expectations we have behind closed doors and we lose some degree of privacy by virtue of being in public, even if we are not asked to establish identification.

Before we become too enamored of the concept of ID documents of any sort as a form of security, or fearful that any other technology will be abused, we must ask two questions, how we prove who we are to each other when we need to do so, and how to do that without impinging on the right to live our lives without a sense of being monitored and overseen.

Oppressive societies don't require sophisticated technology to infringe on privacy. Rudimentary technology can put a cop on every street corner or turn families into nests of spies. More sophisticated technology can monitor every street corner with web cameras and facial recognition software, but the principle of oppression does not require sophistication to be effective.

The values with which we apply technology define its use for good or evil, not the sophistication of the technology.

Whether we are using ID cards or biometric identifiers that seamlessly announce our presence wherever we may go, the intersection of technology and identification is a place where we must start by asking what degree of identification is both effective and consistent with our values. What do we need to know about each other as we go about our lives? How much should a free society require of its citizens on their travels?

The possibilities for establishing the identity of individuals and regulating movement are as endless as the inventiveness of scientists and policymakers in collaboration, ranging from commonsense to ridiculous and appalling. The challenge for scientists and policymakers is not how to tinker with ID cards, but to decide how much identification is needed in what contexts, and to use modern technologies to ask of the public only that degree of identification as is needed.

Verifying identity is ultimately a question of applying the most reasonably reliable available technology to the template of a society's values. It is not a question of any kind of ID card, or deferring to the wishes of either those who prize order above all else or those who are afraid that any form of identification will restrict freedom. If we apply the power of technology to establish identity in a way consistent with our values, we will find answers for our time, and not an earlier era. The answers may look very different than an ID card and, if done consistent with our values, might even be more protective of liberty.

Mark A. Shiffrin, an attorney in Connecticut, is a former Connecticut state Commissioner of Consumer Protection and Deputy General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Education.

Avi Silberschatz is Sidney J. Weinberg Professor and Chair of Computer Science at Yale.