ID and security

Written October 2001, a month after the 9/11 attacks. I include it here partly for whatever value it has in itself, and partly to remind people what has changed since then.

For years, ever since identification has been required at the gate [sometime in the mid 90’s I think, I haven’t been able to pin down the date], I have avoided flying because I find the security oppressive. I can’t stand what I call the airline police state: Being scanned, questioned, identified, and legally required to follow orders. I have been sent on a bunch of business trips, for which the airlines accepted my stamped-and-certified-true-copy birth certificate as identification, but on my own account I traveled by train.

My birth certificate is the only valid ID that I own. You might suppose that the airlines were right to accept it, because it is a base form of identification starting with which you can build up to obtain any other IDs that you want. Of course, no ID genuinely identifies unless you, first, verify with the issuing authority that the ID’s information is valid (note 1); second, verify that the holder is the right person (note 2); and third, verify that the ID is the original and has not been tampered with (note 3). Since few do all three steps outside a security clearance background check, ID rarely functions; it’s often right but is not authoritative.

note 1 When you use a credit card, the merchant may electronically check that the card is valid, but they don’t usually do much to check that the person using the card is authorized to. Nobody asks for a signature online, and even in person they’ll rarely look at the signature.
note 2 That’s what the photo on photo ID is supposed to be for. Pretty weak, but do you want them to take your fingerprints?
note 3 It’s ironic that currency has better anti-counterfeiting features than personal identification does. I’m sure fake IDs are more common than fake money, though I guess they’re usually less harmful.

Still, the airlines were being lax to accept my birth certificate, because it does not mention the name that I go under now.

Now I can’t fly at all. Someday I suppose I’ll be forced to go through the hassle of acquiring ID and becoming a full-fledged member of the oppressed surveillance society, but for some reason I’m not in a hurry.

Even Amtrak is now requiring photo ID [a decision that the subsidized Amtrak made under government pressure]. I think I will choose to stay home for the foreseeable future.

I am depressed to be living in a world that is growing ever more afraid of itself. When I lived in the dorms at college in the eighties, the crime rate was higher than now. But then you could walk in, where now the outside doors are supposed to be locked at all times, and visitors are supposed to call to get inside. There is less danger, and more precautions against strangers; standards of safety are higher.

None of this is to say that I disapprove of security. Metal detectors have been in the airports since the seventies; I do not remember being in an airport without them (though I must have been at some point). But I have read about how easy a crime hijacking was before then—hard to get away with, to be sure, but easy to perpetrate; just carry a gun on the plane, then wander up to the cockpit to announce that you’d enjoy a visit to Cuba.

The only way I win is to live in a world where people justifiably trust each other. Idealism has a high price.

2012 notes

Wow, notice how much tighter all aspects of identification are nowadays? And yet how far it still is from theoretical ideal practice?

Lately, some shops require ID to purchase with credit card in person. The powerful credit card companies have pushed so much of the cost of fraud to the merchants that this is probably a good idea for some merchants. But it’s weird—I just buy stuff online instead.

Original version, October 2001.
Updated and added here January 2012.