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Security Blanket

It's natural these days to want to be safe and then to be sorry about what is required to create that illusion.

By 3.1.04

By clicking on the URL to view this article, you have made a security decision: that doing so will not harm your computer. Every time you answer the cell phone, you risk being overheard, but, you must reason, the need to communicate outweighs the risks of a third party eavesdropping. In his contrarian tome Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World (Copernicus Books, 295 pages, $25), Bruce Schneier asks us to consider the security trade-offs that we make every day as well as those that our country is making for us.

Since the tragedy of September 11, says Schneier, we've gotten used to flashing identification every time we visit government buildings as well as the long lines and intrusive searches at airports. In fact, "In February 2003, we were told to buy duct tape when the U.S. color-coded threat level was raised to Orange." Thousands of changes have been instituted in the name of security and, ironically, "many of them may actually have made us less secure."

For example: In December of last year, the European Union finally turned over detailed passenger data to U.S. aviation officials. The data could have allowed for more accurate screening of incoming passengers. Instead, the existing fail safes nearly shut the whole system down. Several flights were mysteriously canceled as agents chased computer generated false alarm after false alarm. Coming as this did during the Christmas season, the cancellations created the mother of all bottlenecks.

One problem is how difficult it is to quantify the effectiveness of security measures. There is no way to know, let alone say, that X percent of planned terrorist attacks were thwarted because of these policies. If security works, it tends to go unnoticed. Only when breaches result in tragedy do we hear about it. Failures nearly always result in calls for more stringent measures, regardless of whether previous protocols were observed (in which case, the solution would be to redouble enforcement efforts).

Case in point: A national ID card has been proposed and polls consistently show that the American people are in favor. This card, which would be carried by every man, woman, and child in the U.S., would presumably go some distance toward thwarting terrorism. Except that IDs are frequently abused and forged. College students under 21, for instance, are expert in creating cards that fool bartenders, security guards, even border agents. Nor is this special pleading. Several of the infamous hijackers, Schneier reminds, all used falsified identities to get on the planes.

The issuing of national IDs would be no small matter. In addition to cutting the physical plastic cards, a database would have to be created of all 300 million U.S. citizens and resident aliens. Terminals would be issued (say to all police officers in their squad cars) that allow authorities to check the cards against the database. Processes would need to be put in place to register a few hundred million people.

The room for error and fraud here simply beggars belief and the cost would be enormous. In the first instance, how closely do airport screeners and other authorities really check IDs? Also, such a large database would lend itself to abuse. Powerful incentives would exist for police officers and other state employees to leverage their access to the data for personal gain.

This effectiveness of the system also assumes that children, who often can't keep track of their own homework, would remember to take their national ID card every time they left the house. It would give the obsessive-compulsive yet another thing to worry about before walking out the door.

Granted, there might be some nominal benefit from national IDs, but there are tradeoffs. The costs used to issue the cards and construct a database could probably be put to better uses. National IDs have had problems in the other countries where they have been implemented, chiefly forgery, and surely the U.S., for all its exceptionalism, will not be immune to this.

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