Trusted-Traveler ID Card Not To Be Trusted
2/11/2002 12:00:00 AM - Joel Mowbray
With the continual threat of terrorism, the specter of a national ID card
has reared its ugly head again, this time in the form of an
innocuous-sounding “trusted-traveler” program.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is currently considering plans for
an ID card to be used initially by frequent fliers on a voluntary basis.
Cards would contain not just a photo, but also biometric data, most likely a
fingerprint. Passengers with the special ID could avoid long lines and
breeze thru security checkpoints. In theory, the ID cards would facilitate
quick checks against available FBI records.
So if people opt to participate in a voluntary program, what’s the
problem? For starters, government programs always snowball, particularly
when big brother’s power is enhanced. Once the ID cards prove a “success,”
which will undoubtedly be the government’s official line, it’s only a matter
of time before all passengers are forced to carry one, and not just for
planes. The legislative language doesn’t restrict the scope, so trains and
buses could require the special IDs.
This big brother boondoggle is backed by a supposedly limited-government
conservative, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). No doubt he sincerely believes
that the trusted-traveler ID would be simply splendid, but the road to
tyranny is paved with good intentions.
Far from being a paranoid conspiracy theory, the reality is that federally
issued and controlled ID cards with fingerprints will take us further along
the road to a national ID card than any other partial measure could.
Consider how many frequent fliers there are, and add to that the rest of the
flying population within 10 years, and suddenly, you’ve got a massive
federal database containing sensitive personal information on most of the
If Culberson has his way, the feds would immediately implement this
trusted-traveler program, despite the fact that the issue has scarcely been
studied. Although Israel has operated a similar system for the past five
years, there is no way to determine if their approach could work on an
immensely broader scope in America.
Scuttling the normal legislative procedure in the aftermath of September
11th, several lawmakers slipped the trusted-traveler language into the
Aviation and Transportation Security Act, minus specifics, without holding
even a single hearing to determine the merits or potential effectiveness of
such a plan. Given the enormous privacy implications at stake, it’s worth
asking a question Congress didn’t: will these ID cards even work?
Assume for a moment that the trusted traveler program is established
without a hitch. In the words of Culberson, card-holders would “be
subjected to less rigorous screening procedures than other passengers,”
enabling airport security “to focus their attention and resources on
passengers who pose a legitimate hijacking threat.” What about the
possibility of someone who appears to be a model citizen and whose terrorist
intentions are concealed, even from the FBI? Is that someone we want waived
through because he doesn’t “pose a legitimate hijacking threat”?
If anything, a trusted-traveler or national ID card system could merely
succeed in lulling us into a false sense of security, prompting us to turn
our back on other measures. Such complacency could be lethal, because the
ID card would not be foolproof.
Any large-scale database with networked servers, not to mentions hundreds
or thousands of programmers with access, is vulnerable to hacking. One need
look no further than the experience of the Veterans’ Administration, whose
employees bilked the agency for at least $14 million in fraudulent benefit
checks. To make matters worse, veterans’ detailed medical and service
records were easily hacked by government-paid, mid-level hackers during a
security audit. The VA’s Deputy Inspector General made a stunning
confession to Congress: an unsophisticated teenager could have “owned” the
VA computer network.
What should give serious pause to backers of a new traveler database is
that the VA’s system was the product of more than $1 billion per year spent
on technology since 1996. Perhaps even more alarming is that the VA’s
computer network is not anomalous in comparison to other agencies. A House
subcommittee issued a report in 2000 giving the federal government an
overall “D-” grade for computer security.
Creating a trusted-traveler ID card might seem like a reasonable security
measure, one that would help safeguard our skies. But if the program
fast-tracks previously law-abiding terrorists thru airport security and the
database storing vital information is susceptible to hackers, the loss of
our privacy is not the biggest threat it would pose.
This is one plan that no traveler should trust.