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Your Papers, Please

The most recent school shooting seems to have tipped the balance. This time, students are protesting and there is a new determination to get something done. Certainly , this particular shooter had a long history of trouble that raised a number of alarms. But what, exactly, can and should be done?

The FBI has admitted “bungling” a report on the shooting by not referring it to the Miami office. But what system do they have for tracking people? How is information gathered from many different local agencies? If there is a database, what protections are granted anyone in it? How can you find what it has on you and correct it?

It suggests some kind of national tracking and identification system is necessary. If there is some action from this shooting, it raises questions as to how any new or existing laws might be enforced. Who is allowed to buy a gun? Or to board a plane? To vote? To buy protected medicines like marijuana? To even be in this nation? To work?

Privacy issues are everywhere today. We deal with them in a very haphazard way.

Many issues, left and right, suggest the need for a comprehensive national identification system. Nearly everyone supports some new law which would, at the very least, require verification of some kind before being allowed to do something. Everyone would like to see “criminals” and “terrorists” thwarted by the authorities somehow. But there has been no national debate as to how any of this is supposed to happen given what can only be called a haphazard system of identification and various privacy laws.

Let’s stay with the horrible example at hand. It’s known that he had been expelled from High School for violent tendencies. But was that reported to someone who could make a difference? There are laws in place requiring that even a psychologist has a “duty to report” such things in most states, but to whom? Where would the information go? Does it include children under 18?

There was an FBI report that someone with the same name left a comment on youtube, which was not referred to the Miami office. But how would they know the person was in South Florida? Which person holding this relatively common name made the comment? How would such information be “referred?”

No one who fears is truly free.

There is a standard for reporting issues raised in medical examinations. Passed in 1996, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) has a number of privacy safeguards while requiring that all medical information be put into a standard format. But under these provisions, a minor under 18 is protected from such reporting. There’s a good chance that everything his school knew could not have been reported.

We also have something like a national ID system. RealID was passed in 2005, and it requires identification cards that meet very tight standards for verification in order to enter any federal facility. This includes airports and therefore boarding a plane. Most states went along with the requirements and created “enhanced driver’s licenses”, but a few have not. RealID includes entry into a master database, but does not outline in any detail how that information can be used. It is presumed that the “No- Fly” list refers to it, but it is not talked about publicly in any detail.

Between these two laws, standard databases and provisions for a national identification have been set up, to some extent. Yet they remain mysterious.

Who runs the databases of our lives?

To date, there is no actual national ID card. About one third of all Americans do not have a driver’s license, so that particular system cannot be counted on to provide anything universal in scope. This makes the United States unique among developed and many developing nations as well.

Germany, for example, has a comprehensive national identification system that includes information about health care, qualification to buy a gun, driver certification, and just about everything you can name. Given their history with government “lists” of people, there are a number of safeguards built into the system specifying what information can be used when and how anyone can find out what is listed under their name and number. Most information is stored on the card a citizen carries, meaning it is not in any centralized database at all. It was well planned and thought out.

No such system exists here. Very likely, most people would oppose such a thing, too.

Consider, for a moment, a national health care system of some kind. Let’s leave aside who pays and focus on billing. The National Institute of Health (NIH) has estimated that a simplified billing system would save about 15% or $375 billion every year. That may be the difference which makes a national system affordable. A national ID system that pinpoints who is receiving care and their eligibility would probably be necessary to make that happen.

Without a universal and free system, ID for voting restricts rights.

Or, if you are more conservative by nature, you may be concerned with who votes. Given that a third of Americans have no driver’s license, how do you tell? Or for that matter, if you ask people for proof they are here legally, can they actually do it? Neither of these goals is really achievable without a national identification system of some kind, probably including an ID card.

To swing back to the left for a moment, how is any kind of gun control possible without such a system?

For all of the issues touched by this, it is quite shocking that no one is talking about national databases, privacy safeguards, or identification cards. Instead, we are slouching towards systems without considering the implications for privacy. As a result, we can’t be sure of the dangers with what we have and we are probably not reaping the full benefits in terms of security and cost reduction that we would have if it was done properly.

Control over the streams of data is control over a lot.

Should there be a national database of everyone and an ID card that connects them to it? My first thought is “absolutely not,” despite the obvious benefits. But could a system be designed which meets my concerns and has built in protections? Possibly.

Like many issues today, this is what we should be talking about but simply are not. Many other nations are moving forward within their own traditions and laws. It will likely be much more difficult here, but we need to think this through. There are databases of some kind being developed all the time, but we do not know what is in there and how the information is used. Simply saying “No” is already not an answer.

The latest events in the news only highlight the need for relevant data and good personal protections. But we’re far too busy shouting or making excuses to focus on the problem and the difficult task of doing something very real about it while preserving privacy and freedom.

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3 thoughts on “Your Papers, Please

  1. I was talking about this the other day. A friend knows someone under 21 with a fake ID that she said looks totally real. You can buy them really easy apparently. So what would stop someone who wanted a gun to get one of those first? Its all so stupid.

  2. Pingback: This Time is Different | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

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