We won’t get rid of SSN-based authentication anytime soon…

… because the issue has been mixed up with the whole terrorism/DHS hysteria. Game over. So now we have “Real ID” which won’t stop any terrorist but somehow is marketed as an anti-terrorist measure. I don’t like this law because it is too focused on physical identification (ID card) and not virtual identification. Trying to impersonate someone in person is difficult, dangerous (you risk being arrested on the spot or at least having your face captured by a security camera) and doesn’t scale. Doing it virtually is easy, safe and scales (you can even do it from anywhere in the world, including places where labor is cheap and the FBI doesn’t reach much). So this is where the focus should be. Also, this law is not respectful of privacy (the “unencrypted bar code” issue, even though if someone really wanted to systematically capture name and address from ID cards today they could take a picture of the ID and OCR it, the Real ID-mandated bar code would only make things a little easier).

On the other hand, I also can’t go along with the detractors of this law when they go beyond pointing out its shortcomings and start ranting about this creating a national ID card. While it’s true that this is what it effectively does, someone needs to explain to me why this is bad and why this would make the US a “police state”. If really such IDs are so damaging to liberties, why is it ok for every state to have them? What makes a national ID more dangerous than a state ID?

I agree that the Real ID effort is a bad cost/benefit trade off in terms of protection against terrorism. But leaving terrorism aside, we do need a robust (not necessarily perfect) way to authenticate people to access bank accounts and other similar transactions. In that respect, something like Real ID is needed. And in that context, the cost/benefit trade-off can be hugely positive if you think of how much impersonation costs and how much friction it creates in the country’s economy.

As long as we live in denial about what a Social Security number represents and as long as we can’t think sanely about terrorism, there can’t be an answer to the authentication problem.

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