by Tom Olago
A White House dream dating back several years may soon become a reality: The idea of a single, secure online ID that Americans could use to verify their identity across multiple websites, starting with local government services. This idea that has been likened to “driver’s license for the internet”, and has also been described as both convenient and scary, may be realized when a pilot program of the “National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace” begins in government agencies in two US states (Michigan and Pennsylvania).
A recent from rt.com reported that The National Institute of Standards and Technology awarded $2.4 million in grants to two states ($1.3 million to Michigan and $1.1 to Pennsylvania) to help them launch pilot programs aimed at testing “new online technologies to improve access to government services and the delivery of federal assistance programs to reduce fraud.”
These programs are said to be “essentially trying to help citizens who rely on public assistance but are overwhelmed by the application process”. The dual pilot program is intended to test out whether the pros of a federally verified cyber ID outweigh the cons. The White House reportedly argues further that cutting down on inefficiencies and fraud would “bolster the information economy”.
Motherboard.vice.com in its recent report on the subject, further reported that ultimately the goal is to replace the use of passwords for online authentication by maintaining the key benefits of citizenry convenience and cost-effectiveness for government agencies, while effectively managing the risks of fraud by introducing a standard process plan called the “identity ecosystem.”
The system will utilize two-step authentication such as some combination of an encrypted chip in your phone, a biometric ID, and security question (such as the name of your first cat). The same process and ID token would reportedly work across all government services, from food stamps and welfare, to filing tax returns, to registering for a fishing license: essentially running the gamut of all key government agency services.
If launched successfully, the system could pave the way for an interoperable authentication protocol that works for any website, in an “all-access token” for the internet. The system seemingly checks the right boxes for convenience, but the scare points have been highlighted as follows:-
1. The age-old basic privacy breach issue: the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), for instance cited risks of 1st Amendment violations, calling the program “radical,” “concerning,” and “makes scant mention of the unprecedented threat such a scheme would pose to privacy and free speech online.”
2. Outsourcing custody of Identity credentials: Potentially banks, technology companies or cell phone service providers such as Google or Verizon could have access to a comprehensive profile of every individual that’s shared with every site he/she visits, as mandated by the government in a replica of a “dystopian Big Brother society”.
3. Inadequate Privacy regulation: As the EFF reportedly told the Times, at the least “we would need new privacy laws or regulations to prohibit identity verifiers from selling user data or sharing it with law enforcement officials without a warrant.”
4. Lack of the segregation of security components: If hackers gets their hands on cyber IDs, they have the keys to everything they need to impersonate and defraud genuine ID holders.
Despite these issues, privacy advocates are seemingly still going to have “a hell of a fight ahead of them”, if the conveniences will be thought to overwhelmingly outweigh the identified risks and issues. The Identity Ecosystem is after all touted as promising privacy protections, convenience, efficiency, security, and choice, among other confidence-boosting measures.
Opponents however have certain historical precedents reflecting the downsides of similar plans enacted in other countries. Dcclothesline.com for example, recently reported: “The program bears more than a passing resemblance to a 2007 proposal by China that threatened to force bloggers to register their real identities and personal details via a single centralized ID system as a means for the Communist government to control information and punish dissenters.
That idea was scrapped for being too draconian, but the Obama administration is pushing ahead with its own Internet ID system in pursuit of a wider cybersecurity agenda that Senator Joe Lieberman publicly stated back in 2010 is aimed at mimicking Chinese-style censorship of the World Wide Web”.
Could this be the real reason and intention encouraging the release of the Identity Ecosystem, now being masked by the stated benefits and conveniences that would reportedly result from its implementation? A report recently published in Infowars.com states that : “The scope of the program could eventually be expanded into an ID card to access the Internet itself, greasing the skids for every citizen to require government permission to use the world wide web, a privilege that could be denied to criminals, accused terrorists and other undesirables, which according to federal government literature includes people who hold certain anti-establishment political beliefs”.
In essence these holders of “certain anti-establishment political beliefs” would include:
* Americans who believe their “way of life” is under attack;
* Americans who are “fiercely nationalistic (as opposed to universal and international in orientation);
* People who consider themselves “anti-global” (presumably those who are wary of the loss of American sovereignty);
* Americans who are “suspicious of centralized federal authority”;
* Americans who are “reverent of individual liberty”;
* People who “believe in conspiracy theories that involve grave threat to national sovereignty and/or personal liberty.”
* People opposed to abortion and “groups that seek to smite the purported enemies of God and other evildoers” as terrorists.
Are you squirming in your seat yet? Although it remains to be seen how this Identity Ecosystem initiative will eventually pan out, there is hardly room for optimism that the program will be little more than another attempt to enhance surveillance and maximize control of free society– if the myriads of examples seen in America over recent years are any indication.