Trusted-Traveler ID Card Not To Be Trusted

Posted: Feb 11, 2002 12:00 AM
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 American public. 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.