Can I See Your ID?


The White House wants to create
a universal identity credential you can carry
around on your keychain or in your smartphone
that will let you get into virtually any
website without having to create new passwords
for every transaction, social or fiscal.

The great thing is that the information necessary
to identify you online would be in one
place. The frightening thing is that the information
necessary to identify you online would be
in one place.

Like the proposed bill from Rep. Ed Markey
(D-Mass.) to standardize chargers and cords so
that your basement closet does not become the
annex of the National Museum of Useless Cell Phone Equipment,
there is something really attractive about the idea of
not having to create a new login and password for each new
transaction or social connection we make on the Web. Logins
will only proliferate as the broadband wagon rolls inexorably
toward every corner of the nation.

And, as a way to protect kids in their new online social interactions
— which, like puberty, appear to be something
parents cannot wish or legislate away, even if they want to —
it has definite possibilities.

Take this example from the White House last week: “Age
Appropriate Access—Antonio, age 13, visits online chat
rooms to talk to other students his age. His parents
give him permission to get an identity credential,
stored on a keychain fob, from his school. The
credential verifies his age so that he can visit chat
rooms for adolescents, but it does not reveal his
birthdate, name or other information. Nor does it
inform the school about his online activities. Antonio
can speak anonymously, but with confidence
that the other participants are his age.”

As a parent, that sure sounds tempting. And
it would help with smartphone transactions,
and allow small businesses to use the regime instead
of having to come up with their own verification systems, which saves them money but
could draw fire from the National Association of
Independent Verification Systems — if there is such a group
— and if there isn’t, there probably will be by the time this
ink hits the page.

It also has big online privacy implications, since the White
House says it would be a way to control access to that information.
But like a Social Security number on steroids, such a key,
in the wrong hands, would seem to have frightening implications
for all the reasons it would be so convenient and useful.

The Obama administration has just announced the initiative,
so there will be plenty of time to Monday-morning quarterback
it, but on Friday afternoon, it looked like a big idea
that was casting an equally large shadow.