Follow Up: ID and Surveillance


The cover story of our August-September 2003 issue, "Suspected Terrorist," reported on computer industry millionaire John Gilmore's court challenge of the mysterious legal requirement to show ID before getting on a plane—"mysterious" because the government refused to tell even the judge in Gilmore's original case what the actual legal requirement was. Gilmore claimed the ID demand violated his Fourth Amendment rights, among others.

After the story appeared, Gilmore lost the case and an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The Supreme Court declined to take the case. In June 2008, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officially announced that travelers who refuse to show ID, à la Gilmore, will be barred from airplanes. (Previously, the consequences seemed to depend on the airport and the TSA agent.) But passengers who regretfully neglect to bring their IDs to the airport are merely subject to secondary screening, possibly including database-inspired questions aimed at verifying their identities.

The Gilmore article appeared at the dawn of public awareness (and public alarm) about potential ID-related privacy threats such as biometric identifiers and radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips. The piece imagined a world where chipped IDs could be scanned in public places and linked to a growing array of government databases.

While RFIDs continue to proliferate in commercial uses, that nightmare scenario has not come true, since it could arise only from a requirement that all Americans carry chipped national ID cards.

Despite a 2005 attempt under the rubric "Real ID," this has not happened, thanks to the resistance of many state governments (see "Who Killed Real ID?" October 2008). RFID-enhanced driver's licenses have been or are being rolled out in a handful of states, although so far they are not required. The latest U.S. passports contain RFID chips, but their surveillance potential is limited, since passports are not held by most Americans and are not used every day.

But it might be that our science-fiction surveillance vision was merely a bit premature. Jim Harper, a technology and privacy scholar with the Cato Institute, says the techniques and practices for a universally tracked and databased America "are still out there waiting for their chance and could be just five years away."