As terrorists around the globe continue to exploit weaknesses in physical and Internet security, governments are caught between a rock and a hard place. To protect a company’s or individual’s identity, we need to gather and store personal information, but at what point does that gathering and storing become distribution—and what are the attendant privacy risks?
Illustrative of this dilemma, numerous Internet news sources report that the U.K.'s new coalition government plans to cancel the national ID card program, in part because some feel it is a “substantial erosion of civil liberties.” The parties have also agreed to scrap the National Identity Register, a database of information from biometric passports and ID cards under development by the U.K.'s Identity and Passport Service and Border Agency.
According to the reports, the ID card project was the subject of frequent criticism, with “privacy activists” saying it was overly expensive, fraught with security risks and a violation of personal liberties. The Labour Party, on the other hand, said the program would allow for tighter control over immigration and help fight crime and terrorism.
Unfortunately, my insight into the British psyche comes straight from Ian Fleming, Dick Francis and the occasional foray onto BBC-TV, so I can’t knowledgeably comment on this as a U.K. problem. Still, the idea of a national identification card has been floated in the U.S., and I think we can learn something from our British friends.
In fact, the insurance industry would undoubtedly benefit from the existence of such cards and a national database that provides positive identification of individuals. Any fraud scheme, for example, that involved false identities would immediately be sniffed out, assuming the system was working as it should. And it would indeed be more difficult for known terrorists to enter our country, which would be good news for those who offer insurance against terrorist attacks.
So we must then consider what civil liberties are being compromised by adopting such a system. On the face of it, the purpose is clearly not to take away anyone’s civil rights (unless you hold that terrorists have such rights). But what happens if some government official does something corrupt with our data, as government officials will from time to time? What do we do about misuse or illegal incursions into such a system that are designed to steal something, or just to hurt someone?
The answer must be that these activities are crimes, and that they must be prosecuted as crimes and not dismissed with a slap on the wrist—as already happens in too many cases of hacker attacks. In a world where terrorism is one of the super growth industries, it is very important that we have positive identifications of people and companies if we have any hope of stopping this alarming trend. At the same time, however, the security of our information systems (both internal and external) must be protected to a degree far greater than most of what we see now.
In the old West, it was considered a hanging crime to steal a man’s horse—the horse being so essential to life and limb. While today we may not be comfortable with hanging offenders who steal our identities—whether they be crooks or government workers—the penalties for doing so must also be severe enough to deter most attempts.
To be sure, no system of identification and security will be perfect, but it remains clear that such a system is desperately needed.
Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.
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