Alexander Real ID Provisions Letter

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USACM
U.S. Public Policy Committee of the ACM


April 4, 2005


The Honorable Lamar Alexander
United States Senate
302 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510


Dear Senator Alexander,


As chair, I write on behalf of the U.S. Public Policy Committee of the Association for
Computing Machinery (USACM) to thank you for the opportunity to comment on Title II
of the Real ID Act, which was added to the supplemental appropriations bill now pending
in the Senate. We wish to express our concern that the legislation would significantly
increase the risk of identity theft while decreasing personal privacy. We also join those,
such as yourself, who anticipate that this Act will create a de facto national identification
system with several critical shortcomings.


As you are well aware, the Real ID Act sets minimum standards for state driver’s licenses
and calls for an interstate compact to govern the sharing of this data among the states. Its
authors argue that these provisions, along with the other aspects of the bill, are intended
to respond to the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that more be done to disrupt
terrorist travel. While we share the authors’ goal to prevent terrorists from entering into
and traveling around the United States, as computer scientists and engineers, we wish to
express our concern on the more technical aspects of Title II of the Real ID Act.


The legislation’s mandate for electronic data collection and storage coupled with its
sharing of state driver's license databases among the states and their agencies will
increase the risk of identity theft. Any database of personal information presents privacy
risks; however, separately administered, linked databases are more troubling because all
data could be exposed from an insecure point in any of the databases or along the
communications pathways used to share data.


The bill's language is vague regarding such critical issues as the principles and methods
behind the creation, implementation, and administration of these databases and
information-sharing arrangements. It contains no guidance regarding how the shared
databases should be secured or how the personal information contained within them
should be handled. Further, it does not specify how to hold the administrators and users
of these databases accountable for proper maintenance and use. For example, there are
no details about: (1) what agents (public or private) would be trusted to access to these
databases; (2) by what method(s) would the data and interstate searches of the data be
secured; (3) how we would ensure that each state database and any related infrastructure
maintain the highest level of security; (4) would one state be allowed to store records
(including possibly inaccurate ones) from another state; and, (5) how would database use
be tracked or audited so that abuse may be caught and problems uncovered. The bill also
repeals existing law related to a consultative regulatory process, leaving no clear
mechanism for addressing these questions. In light of the recent spate of events
regarding criminals and others gaining unauthorized access to large collections of
personal information, as well as current concerns about the epidemic of identity theft in
the United States, these are troubling oversights.


It is also worth noting that these systems are always vulnerable to human error,
breakdown, destruction by natural events, and sabotage – both by outsiders and by trusted
people with malicious intentions. Substantial private sector experience demonstrates
these risks escalate when unrelated organizations share data extensively. Accordingly,
the simple fact of making personal data more widely available across the country in
electronic form will increase the risk of identity theft. Therefore, any legislation
mandating the linking and sharing of large numbers of databases containing personally
identifiable information should specify a minimal level of security and require that
adequate security be demonstrated prior to implementation of such a system. We also
recommend that good practice, as demonstrated around the world, is having a defined
mechanism where individuals can review records about them and correct errors without
undue effort or obstacle.


As you know, many privacy and civil liberties groups have expressed concern that the
bill's provisions for creating national driver's license standards are tantamount to creating
a system of national identification. ACM has a long-standing statement expressing its
concern over creation of national ID cards because of technical issues as well as concerns
about privacy. In addition to the problems of error and identity theft mentioned above,
the following are a few of the other technical and procedural problems that such a system
might pose: (1) knowing the identity of a person reveals nothing of that person's intent –
every criminal and terrorist has an identity but they have no record prior to their first
offense; (2) there is a history of clerks in various states succumbing to bribery to grant
driver’s licenses to unqualified persons; this bill provides a national ID to someone who
can find any lax or corrupt clerk anywhere in the US – a trivial task given the number
involved; and (3) having a single ID will habituate some guards to checking for the form
of the ID rather than the content, thus leading to weaker security than when guards must
study an ID to determine its origin and validity.


I wish to offer you the technical and policy expertise of our committee. USACM is the
U.S. Public Policy Committee of the Association for Computing Machinery, which is the
world’s first educational and scientific computing society with almost 80,000 members
worldwide. ACM members include leading computer scientists, engineers, and other
professionals from industry, academia, and government. USACM's mission is to provide
non-partisan scientific data, educational materials, and technical analysis to
policymakers. Please contact ACM’s Office of Public Policy at (202) 659-9711 if we can
provide any assistance on this or related issues.


Sincerely,


Eugene H. Spafford, Ph.D.
Chair
U.S. Public Policy Committee of ACM (USACM)

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