After Howard Dean's unexpected defeat last week in Iowa, public attention has focused on his temper, his character, and that guttural Tyrannosaurus bellow of his not-quite-a-concession speech. But Dean's views on Americans' privacy rights may be a superior test of his fitness to be president.
Dean's current stand on privacy appears to leave little wiggle room: His campaign platform pledges unwavering support for “the constitutional principles of equality, liberty and privacy.”
Fifteen months before Dean said he would seek the presidency, however, the former Vermont governor spoke at a conference in Pittsburgh co-sponsored by smart-card firm Wave Systems where he called for state drivers' licenses to be transformed into a kind of standardized national ID card for Americans. Embedding smart cards into uniform IDs was necessary to thwart “cyberterrorism” and identity theft, Dean claimed. “We must move to smarter license cards that carry secure digital information that can be universally read at vital checkpoints,” Dean said in March 2002, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “Issuing such a card would have little effect on the privacy of Americans.”
Dean also suggested that computer makers such as Apple Computer, Dell, “Gateway” and Sony should be required to include an ID card reader in PCs–and Americans would have to insert their uniform IDs into the reader before they could log on. “One state's smart-card driver's license must be identifiable by another state's card reader,” Dean said. “It must also be easily commercialized by the private sector and included in all PCs over time–making the Internet safer and more secure.”
The presidential hopeful offered few details about his radical proposal. “On the Internet, this card will confirm all the information required to gain access to a state (government) network–while also barring anyone who isn't legal age from entering an adult chat room, making the Internet safer for our children, or prevent adults from entering a children's chat room and preying on our kids…Many new computer systems are being created with card reader technology. Older computers can add this feature for very little money,” Dean said.
There's probably a good reason why Dean spoke so vaguely: It's unclear how such a system would work in practice. Must Internet cafes include uniform ID card readers on public computers? Would existing computers have to be retrofitted? Would tourists be prohibited from bringing laptops unless they sported uniform ID readers? What about Unix shell accounts? How did a politician who is said to be Internet-savvy concoct this scheme?
Perhaps most importantly, does Dean still want to forcibly implant all of our computers with uniform ID readers?
Unfortunately, Dean's presidential campaign won't answer any of those questions. I've tried six times since Jan. 16 to get a response, and all the press office will say is they've “forwarded it on to our policy folks.” And the policy shop isn't talking.
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“I know of no other Democratic candidate who has this view on national ID,” said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “I hope that he'd reconsider his policy on national ID because it has significant affects on individuals' right to privacy and does not make the country more secure. If you think about it, the implication is that children would have to be issued cards as well. Are we talking about ID cards from birth?”
Dean's March 2002 speech to a workshop at Carnegie Mellon University–given just six months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks–was designed to throw his support behind a standard ID proposal backed by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA). At the time, Dean was chairman of the National Governors Association, a key ally for the AAMVA as it lobbied to transform the humble state driver's license into a uniform national ID card.
“I'm not surprised,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union and a former Vermont resident. “It's a backdoor national ID. It won't even work to protect against terrorism because we know that some of the 9-11 terrorists had phony driver's licenses that they were able to buy on the black market.”
It's true that most American adults already carry around driver's licenses. But the AAMVA proposal would have mandated biometric identifiers such as digitized fingerprints or retinal scans. Depending on how the system was implemented, your license could be equipped with a smart card (which Dean suggested) that could store information about your movements whenever it was swiped in a reader. It could also be tied to a back-end database so all verifications would be logged with the time, date and location.
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It's possible that Dean has a good explanation for his uniform ID card views, and can account for how his principles apparently changed so radically over the course of just two years. Perhaps he can't. But a refusal to answer difficult questions is not an attractive quality in a man who would be president.